Autopilot caused cruise ship crash, Coast Guard says

By Mia Penta

Associated Press

SEATTLE – Autopilot failure caused the jarring turn of a cruise ship that sent plates and glassware crashing and injured more than 70 people, the Coast Guard said.

The autopilot on the 853-foot Norwegian Sky malfunctioned Saturday near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the rudders swung and turned the ship hard to the left when a crew member switched to manual controls, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Scott Casad said at a news conference Sunday.

“It was like the Titanic. People were flying around in chairs. The gift shop was destroyed,” said Sharon Suttle, a travel-consultant manager from Greensboro, N.C., in an interview at the dock in Seattle. “I was afraid for my life. It was scary.”

A total of 78 people reported injuries, and 13 were treated Saturday when the ship docked in Victoria, British Columbia, for a four-hour shore visit, Casad said.

Two passengers stayed in Victoria for precautionary medical care, but all others boarded the ship to Seattle on Saturday evening as scheduled, the cruise line said. One other person was treated Sunday in Seattle, Casad said.

The autopilot malfunction appeared to have been caused by a computer error, Casad said.

The Coast Guard cleared the vessel to resume operations but ordered that the autopilot not be used, he said. Coast Guard investigators will continue trying to determine if the injuries could have been prevented and if the ship should have been using autopilot in that area.

The ship left Seattle for Alaska on another cruise shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday.

Terry Gallagher, spokesman for Norwegian Cruise Line, said he had no additional details Sunday afternoon.

The 2,975 passengers and crew aboard the ship, based in Seattle and registered in the Bahamas, had been at sea since May 13, Mother’s Day. The eight-day cruise included stops at Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska before heading south, Port of Seattle spokesman Doug Williams said.

The mishap occurred near the mouth of the strait that links Puget Sound with the Pacific Ocean, extending inland between Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

“We were in the dining room, and all the dishes were falling around us. The ship sort of righted itself, then it happened again and everything fell off the table. It really felt like it was going to tip over,” said Alice Crady, 71, of Tampa, Fla. who was on the cruise with her husband.

“We had just finished lunch, and we heard a grinding noise and everything started tilting,” said Judy Fields, 55, of La Grange, N.C., who works in education.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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