Disabled find new ferry difficult

  • Apr. 27, 2007 5:00 a.m.

By Heather Ramsay-People in wheelchairs and others who find it painful to walk up flights of stairs may want to think twice about booking a trip on BC Ferries’ new Northern Adventure.
The boat has no functioning elevator and some of the other mechanized lifts, used to get people up and down stairs, are not consistently working.
Yvonne Kafka, a Vancouver Island woman, demanded an apology from BC Ferries when she was forced to get out of her wheelchair and painfully walk up the stairs during a recent voyage between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy. Ms Kafka had just had knee surgery and found the experience excruciating, especially given that she had phoned in advance to ensure that she wouldn’t have to climb any stairs.
“They lied,” she said, adding that if BC Ferries had been honest about the state of the ship, she would not have travelled and put herself in the predicament.
BC Ferries executive director for public affairs Mark Stefanson said the new ferry does have an issue with access for people with disabilities, but the corporation is working to get the problems fixed. He also acknowledged Ms Kafka’s complaint and apologized, saying the corporation is working to make sure all customer service representatives are aware the elevator is not working for the time being.
Mr. Stefanson said they are waiting for a part for the elevator, which is a European model. He also noted they are making changes so the elevator meets Canadian standards. He hopes to have the elevator working by the end of April.
People planning on traveling should be aware the elevator is not working. They may wish to delay their travel, he said.
There is also a lift which can take people up the stairs from the car deck to the first level and robotic stair climbers, which takes people up to the upper decks. Both these pieces of machinery are slow and have had technical problems on recent voyages.
When asked whether the robotic stair climbers are suitable for getting people in wheelchairs onto the top deck in an emergency situation where the life boats are, Mr. Stefanson said BC Ferries has provisions for this.
“The crew would pick them up and bring them to a mustering station,” he said. Even if the elevator were working, it would not be used in an emergency, he said.
With no working elevator, crew members have had to carry a lot of things up and down stairs, including all the ships’ supplies and stores.
Many locals must travel back and forth for medical reasons and can’t easily delay their trips to wait for a functioning elevator.
The Observer talked with several people with disabilities on the islands, but none had taken the ferry yet.
June Russ, a 76 year-old woman from Old Massett, was scheduled to take the ferry on April 23 for medical reasons. She reflected back to the March 27 open house and difficulties she faced then.
Mrs Russ uses a walker to move around and came down island to see the new ferry, unaware of the troubles in store. On the car deck, she waited while staff tried to operate the wheelchair lift.
“They were trying to take me up 40 minutes or half an hour I had to sit on that thing,” she said.
She said the BC Ferries staff called for mechanics and engineers to help, even the captain came out, when finally someone got the thing to move.
Once it got going, she said she felt safe on the lift. It was a nice ride up to the purser’s deck with no bumps. She enjoyed looking at the state rooms, but then wanted to see more of the new ferry.
But the cafeteria, gift shop and lounges are all up on the next deck and Mrs Russ found out she’d have to haul herself up the steps if she wanted to see them at all.
“I pulled myself up the side,” she said of the main staircase leading from the purser’s desk up to the next deck. “There were quite a few steps too.”
Kathy Bell is also from Old Massett. She uses a wheelchair and came all the way down to see the new boat. She said the lift broke down when BC Ferries staff tried to put her on it. They spent an hour trying to fix it, but Ms Bell and her companions couldn’t wait any longer and turned around and started home. She didn’t even see anything on the new boat.
Eric Ross of Queen Charlotte also uses a wheelchair. He was at the open house, waiting to get up the stairs on the lift and didn’t think anyone had used the piece of equipment before it arrived in Skidegate.
“They haven’t trained the crew for a lot of things,” he said.
He is worried about a lot of incidents on the new ferry. Like fire extinguishers falling off the walls and rumours of the engines cutting out mid-trip.
He isn’t going on the ferry in the near future, but wants to head out in August. He said he’s thinking twice about getting on the ferry now.
Ms Kafka has a son who takes the ferry back and forth to the Queen Charlottes regularly and she worries about the state of the ship too.
She said it was nice to get an apology, but she wonders whether BC Ferries is learning from this situation.
“They were lucky only two people died,” she said of the Queen of the North sinking last year.
She said people should remember the boat is refurbished and not new and a lot of things are still being fixed as they go.
She said the phones in the rooms didn’t work and neither did the public address system, especially in the crew cabin area. Many of the state rooms were not in service, because technicians were still working on them.
Mr. Stefanson said BC Ferries was anxious to get the ferry into service and these problems are some of the growing pains. Since the ship came from Europe there are a number of conversions that have to happen, including changes to the electrical system. He said the public address system is being replaced now. The PA and the alarm system will now be wired into different panels.
Transport Canada has approved the ship for now, he said or “they wouldn’t allow us to sail.”
The Queen of Prince Rupert is currently undergoing a refit and is scheduled to return to the Rupert-Skidegate route sometime in May.