The National Transportation Safety Board is urging the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to inspect certain lifesaving equipment that might not operate properly when needed.
The urgent safety recommendations are the result of information learned by the NTSB during its investigation of the Empress of the North grounding earlier this year. The Board has identified deficiencies in liferaft release units and evacuation slides. The Safety Board regards the issues as serious enough to issue urgent safety recommendations in advance of the final accident report.
On May 14, 2007, the passenger vessel Empress of the North grounded at the intersection of Lynn Canal and Icy Straits, about 20 miles southwest of Juneau, Alaska, after the vessel failed to negotiate a turn to the west. No injuries resulted from the accident, but the vessel sustained significant damage to its underside and propulsion system. The 206 passengers were safely evacuated to assisting vessels and transported back to Juneau.
The Empress of the North was equipped with 22 inflatable liferafts stowed overhead on the main deck, 11 on each side, and it had two inflatable slides. Safety Board investigators were informed that about half the launching mechanisms in the liferafts did not operate properly.
Investigators also learned that while the crew attempted to launch the vessel's evacuation slides, they inflated upside down. This resulted in the slides having to be manually turned over by crewmembers.
The difficulties in launching the liferafts and the slides did not adversely affect the safe evacuation of passengers from the Empress of the North, because they were not needed due to the proximity of the other vessels.
Nevertheless, the Safety Board is concerned that had the emergency necessitated a rapid evacuation, valuable time would have been lost employing the lifesaving devices, endangering the safety of both passengers and crew. The Safety Board believes that to preclude that possibility in the future and on other vessels, urgent action is needed by the Coast Guard to ensure that this type of lifesaving equipment works properly.
The Safety Board's urgent recommendations state that the USCG should verify the functionality of the model of remote liferaft release units found on the Empress of the North, and should conduct a one-time inspection of evacuation slides last serviced by the company that serviced the slides on the Empress of the North.