When the Empress of the North ran aground, the band played on — as everyone disembarked in a safe and orderly fashion.
Passengers jolted awake by the ship hitting a charted reef 50 miles southwest of Juneau early Monday were ordered to don lifejackets and gather in the ballroom, where a singer and piano player entertained them with songs including “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as they waited for rescue.
Passengers praised the ship’s crew for taking charge.
“They just seemed to know what they were doing. They were caring, courteous, the whole thing, and I think that’s what kept everybody calm,” said Mary Crosby, 83, of Seattle.
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the grounding of the riverboat-style cruise ship, which had 206 passengers and 75 crew members on board. One person was taken to a hospital for observation, a Juneau city official said.
When Coast Guard helicopters reached the area, the vessel was listing at the southern end of Icy Strait and had begun taking on water, the Coast Guard said.
As the ship’s pumps worked to remove the water, the passengers were transferred safely to other boats in the area and then to an Alaska state ferry to be taken to Juneau.
The Empress of the North floated free of the rock during the evacuation, and the crew was able to stabilize the ship, said the Coast Guard.
The ship arrived in Juneau with a Coast Guard escort about nine hours after the grounding. The ferry Columbia arrived shortly after.
State officials said the hull sustained significant damage and an empty fuel tank was breached during the grounding. A light oil sheen was seen in the area but officials were uncertain if the ship was the source.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Barry Lane said Coast Guard inspectors did an initial survey of the ship as it was moored in Juneau’s Auke Bay and will pass the information on to the NTSB.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the cruise ship ran aground, said Coast Guard officials. It was drizzling in Juneau but the seas were calm.
Good Samaritans were first on the scene of the grounding and passengers were initially evacuated onto lifeboats, a charter fishing boat, a tugboat, another small cruise ship and a coast guard cutter before the Columbia arrived.
“The morning was incredible. You had anybody and everybody that could get there and they all got there as quick as they could and all were willing to help out,” said Coast Guard Capt. Mark Guillory, federal on-scene coordinator.
Passengers left the ship with only their personal identification and medications. They were to be reunited with their belongings later in Juneau. All had been flown to Seattle by evening, said company officials.
“It couldn’t have been better orchestrated the way things fell into place,” said Chief Petty Officer Barry Lane.
The Empress of the North is operated by Majestic America Line of Seattle. The ship has 112 staterooms, a three-story paddlewheel and galleries featuring Native American masks and Russian artwork, including Faberge eggs, according to its Web site.
The 360-foot ship is less than half the size of the average cruise ship in the Caribbean, and is also dwarfed by most cruise other ships off the Alaska coast.
The grounding occurred on the second day of a seven-day cruise, said Dan Miller, a spokesman for Majestic America.
The American-built ship is billed by the company as the only overnight paddlewheel vessel in use on Alaska cruises. It also is used on cruises on the Columbia River between Washington state and Oregon.
The Empress of the North has had other problems since it began operating in mid-2003. In October of that year, it hit a navigation lock on the Snake River in Washington. It has also run aground at least twice before — once after developing steering problems on the Columbia River, and once on a sandbar near Washougal, Wash., as it tried to avoid a barge.