Ferry captain blamed in Mukilteo crash

The captain who piloted the ferry that crashed into the Mukilteo ferry dock June 1 has been fired from his job.

Port Captain Mark McElwaine, Washington State Ferries lead investigator, called Capt. Dan Tracy’s actions leading to the accident “grossly negligent.”

“The collision on June 1 was a direct result of negligent actions of Capt. Dan Tracy,” he said.

“Capt. Tracy failed to follow WSF’s Safety Management System of documented policies and procedures and has been terminated by the ferry system for cause as a result of the findings.”

The ferry M/V Cathlamet ran into the ferry terminal in Mukilteo at high speed in June and damaged a large group of pilings, called a dolphin. The ferry, sailing from Clinton, hit the north wingwall at over seven knots, causing $139,000 damage to the ferry and more than

$1 million in terminal repairs. The impact of the landing caused the dolphin to collapse, blocking the entrance to the slip. It took the ferry system several hours to clear the way and caused a traffic nightmare on South Whidbey and in Mukilteo alike.

At the time of the crash, about 100 passengers were aboard the ferry. The crash led to two minor injuries onboard. A galley worker got hit by a beverage cart and a passenger suffered cuts and bruises when he fell down the stairs.

Washington State Ferries released the investigation report Monday.

Investigators blame Tracy’s actions for the accident. The 13-year veteran of the state’s ferry system failed to follow critical safety management system procedures, according to the report, and the evidence also suggested that failure to follow crew endurance management principles negatively affected Tracy’s performance.

But Tracy’s story is a different one.

His attorney, Carol Hepburn, said the captain was feeling ill that day, but it wasn’t his medical problem that caused the accident, but rather equipment failure.

“It was confirmed by the quartermaster that Capt. Tracy did everything to slow down the boat,” Hepburn said. “Capt. Tracy gave the order to fire the propulsion system. The vessel failed to respond.”

Tracy plans to appeal his termination. Hepburn said the Masters, Mates and Pilots Labor Union in Edmonds will file a grievance on behalf of Tracy.

“We’re going to do our own investigation into the equipment failure,” she said. “We think the firing was unjustified.”

Hepburn added that the Cathlamet has had a number of mechanical and technical problems over the years.

“This boat had a history of problems,” Hepburn said. “I was told its nickname is Crash-lemet.”

In fact, the propulsion system of the ferry malfunctioned in September 1986, and the boat crashed into the dock in Clinton, causing at least $500,000 damage.

However, McElwaine said the investigators checked out Tracy’s equipment failure theory and ruled it out as a possible cause for the crash.

“There wasn’t any equipment failure,” he said. “Capt. Tracy’s version of events and claims of equipment failure were investigated and are dealt with in detail in the Marine Event Report.”

Hepburn said Tracy was never involved in any prior incident and he had no prior disciplinary actions on his record. Tracy also had a 20-year career at NOAH and retired as commander, Hepburn said.

McElwaine said other factors besides equipment failure were also ruled out.

Neither weather nor currents caused the accident. The standard drug and alcohol tests of captain and crew all came back negative.

However, the report alleges that Tracy exercised poor judgment, including leaving the pilothouse during an emergency restroom break without calling proper backup on the bridge, and not following the state ferry procedures. He was on the bridge when the ferry hit the dock, McElwaine said.

Tracy did not slow the vessel at an appropriate distance from the dock and did not begin to back the vessel early enough to ensure the control/propulsion system was responding normally, according to the report.

The report said Tracy did not notify the engine room to standby before beginning the engagement process or obtained confirmation that the bow clutch was engaged.

“The complete lack of adherence to pertinent WSF procedures led directly to the collision,” the report stated.

Tracy did not make full use of the landing radar by not having it on a small enough range to accurately assess the distance to the dock and he failed to use any of the back-up control systems. He also didn’t sound the danger signal or give any warning before colliding with the dolphin, according to the report.

Finally, Tracy failed to demonstrate leadership or give any appropriate direction to his crew in the immediate aftermath of the collision, the report stated.

McElwaine conducted extensive interviews with crew members and reviewed GPS tracking of the Cathlamet crash for nearly two months before finalizing his report.

“While terminating Capt. Tracy was a very difficult decision, our passengers rely on our crews’ uncompromising commitment to their safety every day,” stressed McElwaine.

Hepburn expects Tracy’s union to file a grievance within the next week. However, Mike Murray, a union representative, didn’t return repeated phone calls by the Record.

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