Image: Passengers evacuated
Petty Officer Chris Caskey / Ho  /  EPA
Passengers from the Empress of the North were offloaded onto the Coast Guard Cutter Liberty and civilian vessels after the cruise ship ran aground.
updated 5/17/2007 3:47:27 PM ET 2007-05-17T19:47:27

Crew members of a cruise ship that hit a charted rock said they were trying to correct course when the bottom raked across a rocky shoal, federal investigators said Wednesday.

The Empress of the North then drifted about two miles from the shoal, called Rocky Island, to Hanus Reef, where the crew and passengers were evacuated, said Kitty Higgins, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The riverboat-style cruise ship struck the rock early Monday about 50 nautical miles — or 25 miles as the crow flies — southwest of Juneau as the ship was traveling from Skagway to Glacier Bay.

It severely damaged the ship's hull and prompted the evacuation of all 206 passengers and a portion of the 75-member crew.

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The NTSB interviewed the crew Wednesday. The third mate, who was navigating, and the helmsman, who was steering, were the only people on the bridge at the time of the accident, Higgins said.

The ship was southbound in the Lynn Canal making a right turn into Icy Strait when the crew realized the ship could not complete the turn and it struck Rocky Island, Higgins said.

NTSB officials could not say why the crew could not make the turn. They said they would be able to piece together a clearer picture of events when they have analyzed the ship's voyage data recorder, a device similar to an aircraft's black box.

Higgins said divers have videotaped the ship's hull. The NTSB was documenting and reviewing a half-dozen areas of damage, including broken blades on a propeller used in steering the vessel, which is operated by Majestic America Line, a subsidiary of Ambassadors International Inc.

The ship, which was built in 2002, was involved in two other groundings along the Columbia River in recent years. In November 2003, the ship developed steering problems near The Dalles, Ore., and ran aground, causing minor injuries to a passenger and two crew members.

In March 2006, it again ran aground on a sandbar near Washougal, Wash., while trying to avoid a barge. Nearly 200 passengers were evacuated.

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