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MBTA ferries collide in fog, but passengers escape injury

Kevin Jarnot said he and other passengers aboard the commuter ferry Massachusetts laughed yesterday morning when the vessel, plying Boston Harbor in a heavy fog, nearly scraped its port side against the Long Island Bridge. Bad aim, they thought.

But it was no laughing matter for the 151 passengers and crew when, minutes later, the Massachusetts, inbound from Hingham to Rowes Wharf, collided with another commuter ferry, the Laura. The crash, just before 7:30 a.m., caused structural damage to both vessels but no serious injuries , said Petty Officer Zach Zubricki, a Coast Guard spokesman.

"It was like 'Die Hard,' " Jarnot said by phone, referring to the action film. Jarnot was commuting to the Financial District from the South Shore. "I saw people flying through the air. It wasn't that the boat threw them; it was people diving out of the way."

The 88-foot Massachusetts was laden with passengers, but only the crew was aboard the Laura, which is 101 feet long.

The cause of the collision is under investigation, Zubricki said. Some passengers questioned the adequacy of radar technology aboard both vessels and whether they should have been out in the thick fog.

In addition to the near-miss at the Long Island Bridge, the Massachusetts narrowly avoided a small fishing boat before the crash, passengers said.

"I don't think it would have happened without the fog," passenger David McCabe of Hingham said by telephone yesterday. "But we shouldn't be out there in the fog if they can't get us to work."

But one passenger disagreed with such contentions.

"I was out in a blizzard 10 or 12 years ago, and we were chopping through the ice, and there was no problem at all," said Jeanne Powers of South Weymouth.

"If you didn't think we should be out there, why did you get on the boat?"

Zubricki said that both vessels were equipped with working radar and Global Positioning Systems and that the Coast Guard issued a warning to vessels yesterday morning about the poor visibility, which was zero in the harbor, according to the National Weather Service.

The decision to stay docked is ultimately left to individual ferry masters, Zubricki said.

"This is not the first foggy day in Boston Harbor," said Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the ferry service.

"There has not been a definite ruling that it was related to the fog. The fog may be one factor. That's why the Coast Guard is conducting a thorough investigation."

The Massachusetts, which docked at Rowes Wharf after the collision, had a substantial gash near its bow and several broken windows. Authorities were assessing the monetary damage. The Laura, which sustained an estimated $10,000 in damage to its bow, is being repaired in Charlestown.

Pesaturo said the commuter service would not be delayed because other ferries will take over the routes of the damaged vessels.

Last summer, the engine room of the Massachusetts caught fire, and passengers were transferred safely to the Laura. There were no serious injuries, but the craft sustained $800,000 in damage. Officials ruled that faulty maintenance by a contract mechanic was to blame.

The commuter ferries do not operate with a tracking system commonly used on the West Coast designed to avoid such collisions. The system provides more detailed information about vessels than the blips that appear on radar -- including the vessel's name, speed, course, position, and even how many minutes until a collision, said Jeff McCarthy of the San Francisco Marine Exchange. He was involved in the system's development.

Automatic Identification System transponders are required in all new passenger ships in San Francisco Bay, where the Coast Guard mans a vessel traffic service, McCarthy said.

The Coast Guard does not require Boston ferries to have the technology, which can run about $5,000.

The Massachusetts and the Laura , which both have capacities of 350, are owned by Boston Harbor Cruises but are used by the MBTA to provide commuter service between Hingham and Rowes Wharf. The trip typically takes about 25 minutes, with an average daily ridership of about 3,200 .

Claire Cummings can be reached at

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's City & Region section about the collision of two commuter ferries in Boston Harbor misidentified the owner of the ferry Massachusetts. It is owned by Massachusetts Bay Lines Inc. The Massachusetts and the other ferry involved, the Laura, contract with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.)