On October 4, 1980, the aurora borealis danced above the stricken cruise ship as the elderly passengers crawled out of bed and made their way to the upper deck after the captain announced that there was a fire in the engine room. Almost everyone aboard, in the inhospitable Gulf of Alaska, one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world, was of retirement age or older.
Later, Muriel Marvinney explained how she and her friend Agnes Lilard came to be aboard: "Our families are wonderful. We're both fortunate that our children and grandchildren live nearby and visit us. But, loving as our children are, and with all the dear friends both Ag and I have, there is a kind of invisible barrier for us as widows. You're always fifth wheel at social gatherings....When we broached the idea of our taking 'a slow boat to China,' our children were all for it. The more we thought about it, the more exciting the idea seemed. All summer we pored over brochures like a couple of kids."
The boat they chose, as so many other retirement folks chose, was the intimate-sized cruise ship the Prinsendam, otherwise known (in a nod to the popular TV show The Love Boat) by the affectionate nickname The Old Codger Boat.
The small Prinsendam (only 427 feet long, about the size of the flagship of Alaska's ferry system), did not have a very auspicious start. She was built in 1973 as the smallest of Holland America's fleet of cruise ships, and just before her inaugural cruise a fire started in the barrom and spread to the electrical wiring, burning out of control for an hour and a half.
On the night of her final cruise, seven years later, the fire started in the engine room. The reaction by the crew was belated and inadequate. The captain, unaware of a large time lapse between when the fire began and when his instructions were followed, assumed that there was no great danger and didn't immediately send out an SOS, assuming that their onbaord fire suppression methods would handle the blaze. However, he did send out a preliminary message that they had a situation that might escalate to an emergency.
The Coast Guard and all shipping in the area immediately went on alert. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard was hundreds of miles away from where the Prinsendam was located out in the perpetually storm-harassed Gulf. If the elderly passengers were forced to take to the lifeboats it would be hours before the rescue heliccopters and cutters could reach them.
At first the passengers thought it was only a minor fire that would be taken care of soon, and they good-naturedly joked and chatted on the dark deck in their eclectic night attire, some of them in wheelchairs. The crew passed out drinks and snacks and opened the gift shop to offer sweaters to any who needed them. The ship's entertainers, including a man who later come to fame as the musician known as Yanni, played music for them and they happily sang along.
In the early hours of the morning, still assuming that everything was going to turn out all right, the captain allowed the passengers to come back inside to get warm. He also agreed to allow the crew to open up the dining room. Unfortunately, this caused the fire to re-ignite and abruptly blaze out of control.
Hours before daylight, the captain sent off an SOS and announced that they were abandoning ship.
Until then the dead, unlit cruise ship, its electricity lost to the fire, had been wallowing gently in five foot swells with a gentle ten mph wind blowing. As the night progressed into dawn, the winds and seas began to rise.
In addition, the smoky Prinsendam was starting to list as the fire blew out porthole windows and the growing swells sloshed water into the ship through these many openings.
There were difficulties with getting the lifeboats loaded and lowered. Without electricity, they had to be lowered manually. One of the largest lifeboats got fouled in its lines and was abandoned, hanging at an angle. Another lifeboat was nearly lowered on top of another. None of them had power and the elderly passengers, crammed in so tightly they couldn't move, couldn't push their boats away from the steel sides of the ship as the waves ground and slammed them into it.
But finally they were free, bobbing about in their small boats in the vast Gulf of Alaska under a murky dawn sky with, in front of them, the cinematic vision of their cruise ship pouring smoke out her portholes and listing into the growing seas.
The captain, twenty-five crewmembers, and fifteen passengers remained on the stricken cruise ship. But by then Coast Guard and Air Force planes and helicopters were beginning to arrive. They managed to drop firefighting equipment and experts onto the liner, but after several different attempts to contain, let alone put out, the fire failed they had to admit defeat.
By the most astonishing good fortune, the oil tanker Williamsburg, fully loaded with Prudhoe Bay crude from the pipeline terminal in Valdez, arrived on the scene. Riding low in the water, it was the ideal platform in those conditions for getting the hundreds of passengers out of the lifeboats to a safe haven, especially as weather conditions continued to deteriorate. The only problem was the passengers would have to climb 40-foot rope ladders to get aboard the giant tanker.
After having been wedged into the lifeboats and wallowing around in heaving seas, some of the elderly passengers (including those who were wheelchair-bound, suffering from cancer, epilepsy, having a malarial relapse) were in no shape to attempt this feat. That didn't stop some from gallantly giving it a go. They made it to the top, but, knowing how bad storms in the Gulf could get--and knowing they were about to be struck by the remnants of a typhoon--the rescuers realized they had to speed things up.
Thus began one of the most amazing sea rescues of all time as Coast Guard helicopters hoisted the passengers, between ten and fifteen per load, aboard and then transferred them to the tanker. The elderly passengers, at this point some of them suffering from hypothermia, dehydration, and severe sea sickness, had to crawl into the steel basket, cling for dear life, and be hauled through the cold, windy air, swinging above the growing waves, to the side of the helicopter where they were dragged inside.
It took the rescuers, sometimes racing away with a load of passengers to Yakutat to re-fuel, from 9am to 6pm to transfer 380 Prinsendam refugees to the tanker. The Coast Guard cutter Boutwell had 80 passengers on board. Included in the rescued were the captain, crew, and passengers who had been left on the now completely abandoned and severely listing cruise ship.
By now the remnants of the typhoon were lashing the Gulf with thirty-five foot seas and forty knot winds. The rescuers decided it was time to head for harbor. Shortly afterwards they realized that some Air Force personnel (rescue divers who had been lowered to help get passengers out of the lifeboats and into the basket) and twenty passengers were missing. Night closed in as the storm struck in full force.
Conditions made it unsafe for the helicopters and planes to continue searching for the missing lifeboat. Instead, the Coast Guard cutter Boutwell turned back and began a search they were afraid would end in disappointment and tragedy. At 1am, to their amazement, they found the lost lifeboat and managed to get everyone safely aboard.
What was it like for those alone in the small vessel, at the mercy of towering seas, icy, spray-filled winds, worried that they might have been forgotten and abandoned? Many of the elderly passengers said they were at peace, despite their physical misery, with the idea that it might end here in this unforeseen adventure. They prayed to be rescued, but they knew that whatever happened they'd experienced long, full lives.
Muriel Marvinney recalled, "From all over the [lifeboat] voices joined in repeating the prayer Jesus taught us. In spite of the Babel of so many languages--English, Dutch, French, German--we were all one at that moment."
Incredibly, despite the conditions and the elderliness and frailty of many of the passengers, not a single person was lost as the cruise ship Prinsendam sank through 9,000 feet of cold water to settle on the floor of the Gulf of Alaska, 225 miles offshore. The Coast Guard attributed this, modest about their own part in the rescue, to the patience, endurance, and good will of the passengers. They believed that it was because they were elderly, because they had learned the wisdom not to panic and instead to quietly fall in line with the rescuers' orders, that one of the greatest maritime rescues of all time was pulled off without loss of life.
Note: Many of the details come from the book Burning Cold by H. Paul Jeffries. For those interested in reading it, be aware that while it has a wealth of detail, the author goes on awkward tangents and the book probably could have used more editing.
This blog post is for retired USN Chief, Melanie. Thank you for reminding me to write it.