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A missing cotter pin, worth pennies, is being blamed for putting a multimillion-dollar ferry aground.

The Queen of Oak Bay ferry lost power on its approach to the Horseshoe Bay terminal last week and the captain steered the vessel into a marina, where it crushed 22 boats.

"The issue here starts with the cotter pin. It's really that simple," British Columbia Ferry Corp. president David Hahn said yesterday.

Mr. Hahn's comments followed a technical briefing from the company's vice-president of engineering on what happened to the ferry.

Mark Collins explained that without the cotter pin -- a split pin that opens after passing through a hole -- a nut came off a device linking the engine controls on the bridge to one of the vessel's two engines.

That in turn allowed both engines to increase speed, eventually tripping control mechanisms that released the ship's clutches, disengaging the engines from the propellers at the bow and stern.

"No engines. Propulsion is lost. No thrust," Mr. Collins said, explaining how the 139-metre ferry lost power.

Mr. Collins said the cotter pin retainer had put in 20 years of service without a problem.

"I think we're looking at an anomaly here, we're not looking at a failure of basic design."

The ferry had been back in service for less than two weeks on scheduled service to Nanaimo when the accident occurred.

Ferry officials revealed that the device that was serviced had been taken out of the vessel during its $35-million refit, then reinstalled.

"It was not a B.C. Ferries employee or subsidiary that worked on that item," said Mr. Hahn, who refused to identify the private contractor.

The accident was investigated by Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board and Lloyd's Register of Shipping.

Engineers say it's not likely a similar fluke would occur, but that all ships in the B.C. Ferry Corp. fleet were checked as a precaution.

Sea trials were conducted Wednesday and Transport Canada reissued an operating certificate allowing the Queen of Oak Bay to return to service today.

Mr. Hahn would not speculate on the overall cost of the ferry mishap.

He said B.C. Ferry is negotiating with owners whose boats were damaged or destroyed and has settled with three of them. Mr. Hahn noted that the marina is being rebuilt and suggested that passengers stranded aboard the stricken ferry for more than nine hours would probably receive gift certificates.

"I think we'll do something to compensate every one of the 544 passengers," he said. Yesterday's news conference came just hours after the terrorist bombings in London, allowing Mr. Hahn to speculate on new security measures that may be needed at B.C. Ferry Corp.

He said the company is "plugged in" with all the different security agencies and got information about the London attacks right away. A lot of work on ferry security has been done since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, adding changes are coming as early as this fall.

"Right now there is too much unattended baggage," Mr. Hahn said. "I think we're going to have to change that policy."

He added that the change will probably put a burden on the disabled, the elderly and children.