Islanders endure crash landing of Cathlamet | UPDATED

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents West Seattle and Vashon in the 34th District, announced that he and State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, also of the 34th, would hold a town hall about the crash.

The Cathlamet, one of the two Washington State Ferries (WSF) vessels that had been serving Vashon’s north end routes, crashed on Thursday, July 28, into protective pilings, known as a dolphin, near Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, on its 7:55 a.m. run from Vashon, causing extensive damage to the boat and leaving one car pinned in the top left part of the boat.

No one was seriously injured in the crash, according to WSF.

In a communication on Thursday, Aug. 4, WSF said that the U.S. Coast Guard, in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board, is leading an investigation into why the Cathlamet struck the outside of the offshore piling at Fauntleroy terminal last week. WSF is also conducting its own formal investigation; both investigations will take some time.

As those investigations began, the captain on duty resigned, as of Monday, Aug. 1, and drug and alcohol tests of the crew onboard at the time came back clear.

Cathlamet is currently at WSF’s Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility undergoing further inspection as WSF prepares for several months of repairs, which are estimated at $10 million.

In addition to repairing Cathlamet, in the weeks ahead, terminal maintenance crews will remove all the damaged areas of the offshore piling. They will also do temporary repairs to the damaged piling as replacement parts are fabricated for a permanent fix.

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents West Seattle and Vashon in the 34th District, has also announced that he and State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, also of the 34th, would hold a town hall about the crash.

“This is a lifeline for so many members of our community,” he told The Seattle Times.

A crumpled boat

On Thursday, after the crash, the Cathlamet maneuvered backward in the water to re-position in order to dock at Fauntleroy, and vehicles on the boat were able to depart, including a Vashon Island Fire District (VIFR) aid car which was on the ferry and in the midst of transporting an island patient to a Seattle hospital.

The Vashon firefighter/EMT crew had joined ferry workers in checking in with passengers immediately after the crash, to make sure everyone aboard was safe, said Vashon Fire Chief Matt Vinci. After that, he added, the crew safely transported the patient to the hospital before heading back to Vashon, taking the long way home.

At a press conference held mid-afternoon on July 28 at the Fauntleroy dock, officials on the podium included Patty Rubstello, head of the ferry system, and Amy Scarton, deputy secretary at the Washington State Department of Transportation.

At the presser, Rubstello said that it was “truly a miracle that no one was injured.”

Fauntleroy’s dock re-opened for service by late afternoon on the day of the accident, with another WSF vessel, the Kitsap, replacing the Cathlamet to restore the route’s two-boat service between Southworth, Vashon and West Seattle.

A mechanical problem, however, temporarily beset the Kitsap soon after its arrival at the dock, temporarily reinstating one-boat service and making for an overall miserable day for island commuters.

Numerous islanders on wild ride

Islander Pam Kirkpatrick, one of the passengers on the ferry, said that the boat came into Fauntleroy fast, to the right of the dolphins through which the boat usually passes before docking.

But, instead of passing between the dolphins, the boat was headed toward sailboats docked just south of the Fauntleroy dock.

“I thought we were going to land on the beach,” she said.

She said she believed the ferry crew prevented the beaching of the boat by throwing it from full forward into full reverse, causing the smell of smoke to fill the ferry. She also said she saw concrete in the water, which she believed was due to the damage sustained to the dolphin’s pilings by the force of the crash.

Islander Phaedra Powell-Zecher, who had been sitting outside on the ferry in the middle covered area at the front of the boat, detailed her experience.

“It felt strange because the ferry was going normal speed and didn’t slow down,” she said. “I watched the left side of the passenger deck ram into the dolphin at normal speed.”

Powell-Zecher said that she, too, had thought the boat would run aground, and that she had observed another passenger, who was outside on the front left part of the passenger deck extending above the car deck, running back to safety after the collision had caused steel on the deck to dramatically give way.

The accident will likely have some lasting repercussions for Vashon, where WSF has continued to operate a reduced “two-boat” system despite restorations to full service in recent months to other routes.

The Cathlamet, a 328-foot boat built in 1981 and rebuilt in 1993, has a capacity of 124 cars and 1,200 passengers, and a somewhat checkered history, earning the monikers of “Can’t-land-it” and “Crash-lamet” after it came into service in the 1980s.

In September 1986, the Cathlamet’s propulsion system malfunctioned, and the ferry slammed into the Clinton dock, causing $500,000 in damage.

On June 1, 2007, while sailing between Clinton, on Whidbey Island, to Mukilteo, the ferry crashed into the Mukilteo dock at over seven knots, causing $139,000 damage to the ferry and more than $1 million in terminal repairs, according to news sources at the time.

The captain of the ferry was subsequently fired for “grossly negligent actions” that resulted in that accident.

Upgrades over the years have resolved many of the boat’s early issues, said ferry officials.

But just last year, on July 24, 2021, heavy smoke in the engine room of the vessel caused a large emergency response, with passengers mustered to the main deck, though an evacuation of the boat was ultimately not needed, according to The Kitsap Sun.

The cause of the smoke was found to be a reduction gear, and the boat went out of service to undergo repairs.