State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said all four Steel Electric-class ferries -- the Klickitat, Quinault, Illahee and Nisqually -- will remain tied up indefinitely until problems within their hulls can be fully identified and, if feasible, repaired.
Service on Tuesday evening was halted on the run between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. The ferry system hopes to offer walk-on, passenger-only service on the route, perhaps by Friday.
"This is an emergency," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
"This is a bridge going down," she said. "The ferry system is our highway. The highway system has been broken."
The timing couldn't be worse with Thanksgiving only a day away and 1,000 cars and 350 walk-ons using the route each day during the holiday weekend, Haugen said.
The move is necessary because questions about the aging vessels have reached "a turning point that requires emergency action," Hammond said.
Hammond said she made the decision Tuesday after receiving a detailed briefing about problems with 1927-vintage steel plates along the Quinault's keel.
Inspections by crews assigned to the vessel turned up extensive corrosion pitting the Quinault's hull plates. The seriousness of the problem became clear only after crews began scraping away paint and examining the steel beneath, Hammond said.
Repairs to the Quinault likely will keep it out of service until late January.
Similar problems likely will be found on the Quinault's sister vessels, including the Klickitat and Illahee, both of which were in service until last night, Hammond said.
During the meeting "there was a moment of silence in the room when we discussed this, and I said, 'Am I the only one in the room feeling this?'" Hammond recalled.
All of those present agreed that the only option was to pull the Steel Electrics out of service, she said.
The decision came in spite of an Oct. 30 report to the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee. That report described the Steel Electrics as "generally considered to be in good condition" and followed months of assurances that the vessels are safe.
The Steel Electric-class vessels are the oldest ferries operating on salt water in the nation. Questions about them have been building since March, when the Klickitat was pulled from service after developing a 6-inch crack in its hull.
The Steel Electrics don't meet federal safety requirements in place since the 1950s. They are not designed to remain afloat if more than one watertight compartment floods, which puts them at greater risk of sinking or capsizing.
Modern hull designs keep vessels upright or floating longer if damaged. The Coast Guard has allowed the vessels to operate under a waiver.
The Coast Guard did not order Tuesday's action, said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Howard, who oversees vessel inspections for the Coast Guard in Seattle and is familiar with the Steel Electrics.
"I believe they did the right thing," Howard said of ferry officials.
Washington State Ferries "had a question in their own minds about the safety of the vessels and safety is the No. 1 priority," he said.
Passengers waiting at the Mukilteo ferry dock Tuesday night had some harsh words for ferry officials. The Mukilteo-Clinton run is now the only one serving Whidbey Island.
"Oh, bite me and build new ferries," said Jim Buechner of Seattle, whose parents live on Whidbey Island.
People rely on those ferries and pay for them, said Chris Van Wetter of Clinton.
"Give us a good running ferry there," he said.
Word of the route closure rattled people in Port Townsend.
"Wow, that's scary," said John Eissinger, a bed-and-breakfast owner and real estate agent in Port Townsend.
"Obviously we're very disappointed," he said. "It's going to be difficult for us in the initial transfer, but we would hope that the ferry service would come up with some kind of alternative."
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, there were no signs at the Keystone ferry terminal advising passengers of the abrupt change in ferry service.
However, passengers were told of the change when they bought their tickets.
Keran Kreimeier, 53, of Oak Harbor was preparing for a Thanksgiving gathering of 25 family members in Port Townsend when she heard the news Tuesday night.
She hurried to gather her clothes for the trip and pack the car with the dinner rolls, pies and whipped cream she had agreed to bring for the holiday meal.
She arrived at the ferry terminal in time to catch the last crossing Tuesday night to Port Townsend.
"My mom is so mad," she said. "We have a huge family gathering. But I told my mom: I'm getting on the last ferry. If something happens, I love you."
Tyler Somes, 26, was also in line for the last ferry from Keystone on Whidbey Island on Tuesday night.
Somes is finishing his last quarter at Washington State University. He was in Bellingham on Tuesday earlier in the day looking for a house to buy and then continued on his way to see his parents in Port Townsend.
Somes said his dad works at the paper mill in Port Townsend and has a lot of co-workers who use the ferry to commute to their jobs. He wonders what they're going to do. "He said they're either going to park vehicles at both ends or they're going to learn how to swim."
Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke was angry Tuesday night.
"How do people adjust their lives with no notice?" he asked. "It's frustrating you get to this point and not have a replacement ready. It's tough to understand what folks are supposed to do.
"That line serves as a link for people for their employment. Hopefully something can be done quickly."
State officials already were studying options for replacing the Steel Electrics or scheduling them for major makeovers.
"This just puts this on hyperdrive," Hammond said.
Among other options, Hammond said, ferry officials will consider re-evaluating contracts recently signed for building four 144-car ferries -- vessels that are too large to navigate Keystone Harbor.
Haugen said she fears that if it takes longer than expected to get a ferry back on the run, and finding a replacement drags on, pressure will mount to abandon the route.
"That ferry run will be back," she said. "This is my district. ... Don't you worry; I'm not going to let it shut down."
Adopting a plan for replacing the Steel Electrics, along with replacing the Highway 520 bridge, will be the state's top transportation priority during the new legislative session, said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.
Hammond made the right choice, Clibborn said.
"I think it's commendable," she said. "It's what we ask of our DOT. We want them to stand up and make the right decision and to know when it's time to make a difficult decision."
"I don't want to put a boat back on the water if it's not safe," Haugen said. "It's not pleasant news. It doesn't get any worse for me."
Herald reporters Gale Fiege, Bill Sheets, Yoshiaki Nohara, Jackson Holtz, Diana Hefley, Jim Haley, Scott Pesznecker, Sharon Salyer and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.
Q&A with Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond
Click on the audio links to listen to answers to questions from reporters at a press conference early Wednesday morning.
Q: Why did it take so long to recognize that the Steel Electric ferries needed to be taken out of service?A: Listen to the answer
Q: Were the problems on the Quinualt really that bad?A: Listen to the answer
Q: What's the worst that could happen as a result of the hull pitting on the Quinault?A: Listen to the answer
Q: What is the status of the replacement plan for the state's oldest ferries?A: Listen to the answer
Q: How much will it cost to replace the four boats and where will that money come from?A: Listen to the answer
Q: Who is expected to feel the biggest impact immediately from the decision to pull the Steel Electric class boats out of service?A: Listen to the answer
Q: What is the plan to get the Keystone-Whidbey Island route back up and running?A: Listen to the answer
Q: What should holiday travelers do to cope with the unexpected closure of the Keystone-Port Townsend run?A: Listen to the answer
Report from 710 KIRO Listen to The Herald's radio partner's report on the decision to pull the Steel Electric ferries from service, including a live interview with Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Q: Why are the ferries being pulled now?
A: Extensive corrosion has been found deep inside the 80-year-old hulls.
Q: What are the problems?
A: The 1927-vintage riveted steel plates along the bottom of the Quinault's hull show extensive pitting.
Q: How long will the detours take me?
A: From three to five hours, depending on traffic.
Q: What's next?
A: The state will inspect all four Steel Electrics and determine if repairs are feasible. Meanwhile, efforts to replace the vessels have received new urgency.
Here is a history of Washington State's Steel Electric class ferries:
1927: Steel Electric ferries are launched in San Francisco
1940: Six Steel Electrics come to Washington
Jan. 23, 1981: The Coast Guard allows the Steel Electrics to continue operating without meeting federal safety standards.
May 19, 2000: Ultrasound tests on the Klickitat reveal that, in places, 70 percent of the steel hull's thickness had wasted away.
Jan. 23, 2001: A bill is introduced in the Legislature to build four new ferries. In May, Gov. Gary Locke signs the bill into law.
Dec. 3, 2003: Washington State Ferries announces it will build 130-car ferries and invites boat builders to bid on the project. Lawmakers set aside nearly $348 million to pay for the boats.
May 27, 2004: The state auditor is denied access to the Steel Electrics as part of a "whistleblower" probe.
Aug. 2, 2006: Washington State Ferries scraps the plan to build 130-car ferries, and instead invites boat builders to bid on 144-car ferries.
March 12, 2007: A 6-inch crack in the hull of the Klickitat sidelines the ferry for 21/2 days.
June 26, 2007: The Coast Guard demands increased maintenance and safety inspections for the Steel Electrics.
Oct. 30, 2007: Ferry officials tell the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee the state's four remaining Steel Electrics are "generally considered to be in good condition," but failed to provide a full report of the ferries' conditions, including additional fractures and more widespread corrosion.
Tuesday: Ferry officials announce they will pull all the Steel Electrics from service. The Port Townsend-Keystone car ferry route is shut down until further notice. Another ferry, the Evergreen State, will provide service on the San Juan Islands' interisland route.
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