Investigation: Seattle ferry wasn't overloaded

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SEATTLE (AP) — A state investigation has found that a Seattle ferry that was forced to turn around before a preseason Seahawks football game last month wasn't overloaded, after all.

The ferry Cathlamet was en route from Bremerton to Seattle on Aug. 15 when the captain returned to dock over fears that it was overloaded by nearly 500 passengers. Some 484 passengers left the vessel before it disembarked again for Seattle.

But a report from the Washington Department of Transportation, released Monday under a public records request, said video surveillance showed about 1,073 passengers boarding before the ferry left Bremerton — below the boat's capacity of 1,200, and well below the 1,684 passengers officials believed were on board.

The investigation, completed Sept. 11, suggested that a malfunctioning hand-clicker used to count the passengers was to blame for the erroneous count.

Leslie Tweit, the ferries employee who counted the walk-on passengers, gave a written statement initially saying she did not believe her clicker was broken. But she later told investigators that her clickers had malfunctioned before, and that she was so focused on watching the passengers board that she didn't look at her device to see if it was miscounting.

Her device registered 1,461 walk-on passengers, instead of the actual number of approximately 850, the report said. More than 200 passengers boarded by vehicle.

The report did not say whether investigators actually tested the counter that Tweit used that day.

Spokeswoman Marta Coursey said Washington State Ferries is considering getting better devices.

"It's not high-tech," she said. "We're looking at purchasing new counters."

An internal review by the ferries system raised numerous problems beyond the clickers, however. Due to limited staffing, there was no terminal supervisor on duty when the Cathlamet first left for Seattle, according to documents released Monday. And the passenger count should have been relayed to the captain before the vessel left the dock.

Tweit did not know the vessel's capacity, and when she asked a co-worker, he didn't know either, she said in a handwritten statement: "He kinda laughed and said, 'not sure 1200 or 1600' and then he said no worries we have Cpt Dave F. and he's cool."

"Our review concludes that the root cause of this overloading event was a preventable human error," wrote George Capacci, the interim ferries chief, in an email late last month. "WSF passenger counting protocols in place were not followed. And, decision-making was left to junior personnel with no oversight from the captain or terminal supervisor.

"Since the event, we have learned from the captain that there may be a question of reliability for one of the hand counter used by the overhead loading ramp attendant. This doesn't materially change the review of this event since the number they were counting to was incorrect."

Capacci said passenger safety was not compromised when the vessel returned to dock.

"No part of this incidence is acceptable with respect to good customer service, but we are relieved that most of the ferry riders that had to disembark, and were going to the Seahawks game, should have made it to the game before kickoff," he wrote.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, a Gig Harbor Democrat, said the report illustrated a deeper problem, one that could be a big issue in the event of a disaster.

"How many people are actually on board any boat?" he said. "If you talk with the captains, they all worry that those counts are inaccurate. Crews are really well trained on safety procedures, but we do have this weak spot."


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