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Washington State Ferries (WSF) has announced the 2000-passenger, 188-car ferry Walla Walla will not be back in service until spring of 2013, at the earliest. The vessel is inoperable because one of its four drive motors was destroyed in an electrical accident on November 4. It was undergoing routine maintenance at a facility on Bainbridge Island at the time.

Impact on Riders

The Walla Walla is one of the biggest vessels in the fleet and taking it out of service for an extended period of time means riders will feel some pain. Beginning Monday, those who depend on the Seattle/Bremerton run will sail on a much smaller boat than is typical. The 90-car Sealth will take over for the 144-car Kaleetan. A smaller boat is also being put into service on the Edmonds/Kingston run on Monday. The Walla Walla typically sails on both of these routes. That kind of downsizing will mean longer waits during busy times.

We completely understand that our riders will feel an impact while we make adjustments, especially during the holiday season when people are traveling to see their family and friends. We take these service changes seriously and always consider safety and reliability, what is financially prudent, and the impact on our customers, said Marta Coursey, Director of Communications, Washington State Ferries.

In his weekly update for the public, Ferries Director David Moseley asked riders for cooperation while changes are made during the Walla Walla s absence.

You may wish to stay in your vehicle during crossings on the Sealth as seating is limited in the passenger cabin. If you walk on, please be a good neighbor; do not lie down on the seats and make room so everyone can have a safe and comfortable trip, wrote Moseley.

Costly repair plans

Moseley also announced WSF is proceeding with a plan to fix the Walla Walla by trying to use a spare drive motor that is sitting in a Seattle warehouse. The motor will be transported to a General Electric plant in Los Angeles where the manufacturers will inspect electrical and mechanical systems of the motor to ensure it will work properly. The cost of repairs in Los Angeles is expected to be between $260,000 and $300,000 which does not include transporting the motor or engineering support for installation. There is no guarantee the refurbishing effort will be successful.

The worst case scenario is that General Electric will have to manufacture a new motor for the Walla Walla. That alternative could keep the boat out of service for up to two years. WSF is unsure how much that would cost. As a reference point, a new drive motor ten years ago cost $1.7 million.

KING reported last week that the accident was most likely caused by human error. Legally mandated safety protocols were not taken prior to the accident, which released hazardous electricity into the room that houses the motor. Large chunks of copper and steel melted when temperatures in the area of the drive motor reached at least 2600 degrees Fahrenheit. That s the temperature needed to melt steel. One witness at the maintenance facility reported seeing heavy smoke billowing from the motor room.

No one was injured in the accident, yet a source with detailed knowledge of the event told the KING 5 Investigators that people could have easily died.

In all my years in the maritime industry I ve never seen anything like this. It sent chills up my spine because of the potential to kill somebody. I can t put enough emphasis on how close they came to killing someone, said the source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Investigation Underway

Four separate entities are investigating to get to the bottom of what happened.

Due to the severity of the damage, the investigation has been elevated to a third party contractor, Cadick Corporation. They will be assisted by WSDOT ferries division s senior port engineers, safety systems managers, and electrical engineers. WSDOT has also reached out to the Department of Labor and Industries and the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance to ensure that all employee safety requirements were met, said Coursey.

This is a serious incident and we re going to do a very thorough and detailed investigation into what happened, said Moseley.

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