By Susan Gilmore and Maureen O’Hagan, The Seattle Times
It might take as long a six months for the U.S. Coast Guard to determine what caused a water taxi to strike dock as it was landing on Alaskan Way in downtown Seattle Sunday.
Water taxi service between West Seattle and downtown Seattle is operating on a normal schedule Monday between Seacrest Dock and Pier 55 after King County found a replacement boat from Argosy Cruises.
Service was briefly suspended Sunday when the Rachel Marie struck the dock. The replacement boat is arriving at the Argosy Dock on Pier 55, rather than the water taxi dock at Pier 50, which is owned by the state Department of Transportation. County officials say Pier 50 was not damaged in the accident because the boat veered south and ran into another small dock.
The Rachel Marie is leased to King County by Four Seasons Marine Services in Silverdale, according to the county. Dave Tougas, chief financial officer of the company, said he was mystified about the accident.
“This boat runs 20 times a day. Why all of a sudden it would develop problems is mysterious to me,” said Tougas, adding that under his company’s contract with King County, the county must maintain the vessel. “Things happen. Things break. I feel terrible for the people injured.”
Seven passengers were taken to the hospital, though their injuries were not believed to be significant, according to Coast Guard Lt. Jon Lane. None remained hospitalized Monday.
King County has leased the boat since February, and the lease runs through December 2012. Until King County took over, the boat operated in Alaska and on the now-defunct Bremerton-Seattle passenger route.
Coast Guard inspectors are trying to determine what caused the vessel to crash into the sea wall. Preliminary reports point to a mechanical malfunction, according to King County.
The vessel caused “fairly significant” damage, Lane said, and had been wedged under the landing, on the Seattle waterfront.
He said the vessel was traveling at about 6 knots — about 7 mph.
Lane said 73 people were onboard the Rachel Marie at the time of the accident, many headed to the Seahawks game.
Passenger Dave Barber, of West Seattle, said that before the collision, it sounded as if the engine would not go into reverse, which is what these vessels typically do during docking maneuvers.
A member of the crew announced over the public-address system, “Hold onto something, sit down if you can,” Barber recalled.
The crew’s announcement suggests mechanical failure was to blame, Lane said, though investigators will look into other possibilities, including crew error.
The crew of the Rachel Marie is on paid leave, pending the results of mandatory drug and alcohol testing, according to county spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok.
Lane said water taxis are inspected at least once a year, and the crew’s qualifications are checked as well. The inspection history of the vessel was not immediately available.
The last significant ferry collision here was in August 2009, when a ferryboat serving the Seattle-Bainbridge route ran into Colman Dock. Investigators found that speed, poor visibility and human error were factors. One person suffered minor injuries.
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