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GOD SAVE THE QUEEN

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Last week’s voyage may be last for famed riverboat

By Sharon Graves

The Delta Queen eased down the Ohio River past Carrollton on Thursday, Oct. 23, for what may be the very last time.

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Headed for Memphis, Tenn., the famed riverboat later docked along the riverfront at Madison, Ind. It was a crisp, sunny fall day, and many people from both the Kentucky and Indiana sides of the sparkling river gathered on the bank to pay their respects and get a last look at the historic boat.

Without an exemption from the federal Safety of Life At Sea act, which originated in 1914 after the tragic sinking of the Titanic and was rewritten in 1966, the Delta Queen may end up in permanent dry dock.

The law requires vessels that make overnight trips with more than 50 passengers be constructed with fire-retardant materials. Built in 1926, the Delta Queen has been exempted from the requirement for more than 40 years. The exemption expires Nov. 1.

The Queen carries fewer than 180 passengers; while she has a steel hull and a sparkling safety record, according to all accounts, the riverboat has a superstructure made of wood and, therefore, doesn’t fit the “fire-retardant” construction requirement.

“She has the best fire protection system,” said Capt. John Dugger.

“I wouldn’t be on the boat, if I didn’t think it was safe,” echoed Gabe Chengery, who retired as a Delta Queen captain in 2007. Chengery spent 38 years on the Queen, starting out as a deckhand. He said the bottom line is “politics and propaganda.”

The problem started in 2006, when the Delta Queen was bought by Majestic America. Under the previous owner, employees were members of the Seafarer’s International Union.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn.,  chairman of the House Trans-portation and Infra-structure Committee, had supported exemptions for the Delta Queen until the new owners began operating the riverboat with a non-union crew.

“It is held up in Congress on the House side,” said Jeff Marschner, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, D-Ky., said. “It is a union issue. We have tried to reach out to the company, but they have never returned our calls.”

George Cecala, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, echoed Marschner’s sentiments. “We suspect it is over a labor dispute” that the bill has not come out of committee, he said Monday. “The union, SIU, has close ties to Chairman Oberstar.”

As chair of the committee, Oberstar has not allowed the bill to go to the Senate for a vote.

A similar bill, Senate Bill 3498, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to renew the exemption, also is tied up in committee, said McConnell’s press secretary, Robert Steurer. That bill, Steurer said, was sent to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee “for further consideration.”

That committee is chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who also has strong union ties, said Cecala and others interviewed for this story.

Mary Kerr, press secretary to Rep. Oberstar said that Oberstar has been consistently known as being pro-safety in all modes of transportation.  She cites an email received from the Coast Guard that states” The Coast Guard has decided against developing an Alternative Compliance Agreement for the Delta Queen.  The combustible construction of the vessel presents an unacceptable fire risk that cannot be mitigated by the addition of fire suppression measures.”

The agreement spoken of is one that has been given to commercial fishing vessels that are too old and cannot meet modern regulations, and the Coast Guard developed the program to set minimum safety standards.  

Kerr said that Rep. Oberstar is pro-union, but that has nothing to do with his decision on the Delta Queen.  The Congressional record indicates that in a debate on the House floor Rep. Oberstar voiced his concern for safety noting the Coast Guard’s issue with the lack of fire retardant materials in the superstructure.

Kerr also cited several problems with safety of other ships of the Majestic America Line that prompted the refusal of an exemption.

Kerr says that on the Coast Guard’s website is a database on commercial vessel inspections.  The following is Oberstar’s comment on that.  I have not checked the website yet.

“The certificate of inspection of the Mississippi Queen, also a Majestic America Line vessel was terminated in April 2007 because of numerous safety violations.  Another vessel, the Empress of the North, had a marine casualty in May 2007 forcing the evacuation of 206 passengers and 75 crew- members,” Oberstar said.

Though the expiration date is bearing down, Cecala said there is still room “for legislative action. ... We are trying not to make this a partisan issue, and we welcome whoever will come on board to save these jobs and the economic effect the Delta Queen has on these small towns on the river.”

Cecala continued: “The DQ exceeds all Coast Guard safety requirements. ... This is an important piece of history. It served during war and we shouldn’t dismiss it so easily.”

Chengery agrees that the Delta Queen is very safe. “There are smoke detectors in every room, and the sprinklers have been upgraded. She’s in the best shape today than over the last four decades. ... The Queen is always within sight of land and most of the time within five minutes of easing into land. She has a near perfect safety record. If the boat were not safe the Coast Guard would not let us sail.”

“We have never failed an inspection, not even a surprise inspection,” said Paul Mickelson, an employee aboard the Queen.

Mary Charleton, river historian on the Delta Queen, said neither she nor the other employees have voted on the union issue. Unions are voted in or out by the membership and employees.

“I was a member of the SIU, and I never even knew who my union representative was,” Charlton said. “This is an American ship with American workers, and it is unconscionable. If America knew we were tearing down the Statue of Liberty, they would be outraged. ... Corrupt and greedy politicians are taking this boat out of the water and Americans should be outraged.”

Many passengers aboard the Delta Queen last week said they feel safer on the boat than they do at home.  

“My home doesn’t have smoke detectors in every room, sprinklers or a 24-hour fire watch,” passenger Lance Larsen of Irvine, Calif., said.

“They [Congress] are letting the country down,” said Larsen’s wife, Becky. “It doesn’t have to disappear, and I’m angry about it.”

Ray and Marian Nusekabel of Cincinnati, Ohio, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary aboardship, have sailed on her many times.

“This is sad because it’s not a partisan issue, it’s politics. She’s safe, and anything could happen anywhere,” Marian Nusekabel said.

“If the Delta Queen ceases operation because the boat is not exempt from SOLAS, it will be a great loss,” Chengery said.  “It will be a big mistake to ground the Queen. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the future, we forget about the past.  There is not another ship like her.”

Lori Roberts of Vevay, Ind., brought her 3-year-old daughter Hailey Sainz to the riverfront to see the boat and videotape it’s passing.  

“We came to see the Queen’s last trip.  This is very sad,” Roberts said.

“It will be like missing an old friend,” said Marilyn Smith, who lives on the hill in Milton, Ky. “She made an ordinary day an extraordinary day.”

“This is a riverboat, not an ocean liner,” said Sherrin Kraus, a Hanover resident and former passenger on the Queen. “This boat is the real deal, and this is tragic. An era is dying, and I don’t want to see her go in my lifetime.”

Always the proper lady, the Delta Queen pulled out of Madison right on time, with American flags flying in the breeze and smoke and music from the calliope drifting back to those on the bank.

On the decks, passengers and employees held up signs expressing their hearts desire:  “Save Our Jobs” and “Save the Queen.”