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.
When my dad worked at the logging camp across the strait, my mom let us kids take turns calling him, collect, to update him on how we all were doing. This was high adventure for the eight-year-old that I was at the time.
This was because the only phone in the entire village was at the other end of the trail where we lived, near the one room store.
One evening sticks out in my memory. We lived in a floathouse in a tidal lagoon behind the village and the trail to the village led me past an old, rotting wooden barge, a grassy dike, and then through a patch of strange, dead-seeming forest that often struck me as extremely creepy. That summer evening, though, the sun was glowing brilliantly through the stark trees, silhouetting them.
When I stepped out of the woods, the intensity of the sunlight pierced me and gilded everything in gold, including the long, slim trees lying on top of sawhorse alongside the trail. One of the fishermen had been peeling them to make trolling poles for his boat. The fisherman was nowhere in sight. The partially peeled logs gleamed in the light, the long peels lying under them.
The trail wound past the state-installed community dock. People were visiting each other--some lived full time on their fishing boats down there--and holding barbecue dock parties. The scent of barbecuing chicken reached me on the trail as I continued along the narrow, gravel path with its potholes and occasionally planks to cross a stream that wound up granite inclines, past more forest and salal brush. Woodframe houses were tucked back in the woods or above the trail on one side. On the other side they were built on pilings, or stilts, on the beach.
When I finally approached near the end of the trail there were steps that led down to a wooden platform. Ahead of me there was a line of people, locals and tourists. They were all waiting for their turn at the telephone that was mounted to a spruce tree.
The telecommunications tower was the most striking and out-of-place object in the village and us kids were fascinated by it's anomalous, urban presence. It was tucked back on the very outskirts of the village, beyond the trail's end, and encircled by a tall wire fence. It's huge diesel generators rumbled 24/7. The older kids told us spooky stories about what happened in that secretive compound. They claimed spies lived in the operations building attached to the generator shed.
At night the light at the top of the tower strobed ruby red. When our floathouse was moored in the village proper, directly across from the telephone tower, that red strobe would fill the bedroom and I'd count the seconds of complete darkness in between until I fell asleep.
Later, the tower light was replaced with a stuttering white one that was apparently easier for pilots to see in all weather.
The tower and its light often guided us and fishermen home on a bad weather day or in the dark of night. It was the only landmark in miles and miles of unbroken wilderness.
Those whose houses were closest to the phone were called upon to go and answer it when it rang, regardless of time of day or weather. The caller knew to let the phone ring and ring until someone could get to it. The neighbor who took the message passed it on by C.B. (Citizen Band) radio, which every villager owned. I experienced this first hand when I house sat for someone who's house was closest to the phone. It really made the community feel like a family, since everyone knew everyone else's business, hearing it over the radio all the time. This state of affairs continued well into the Nineties.
The telephone company did put in a phone booth at the head of the dock, next to the community bulletin board, for the boaters/tourists, which cut down a lot on the long line at the phone mounted to the tree.
Shortly after this, the telephone company started laying line to every house in the village. The houses where line wasn't feasible had phones connected to a radio box that needed line of sight to the tower to work.
We lived far out of the village by then so we didn't imagine we'd ever have a landline phone. But in 2001 my dad was hired and trained by the telephone company to be the local phone maintenance man. The phone company figured out that if we put a radio box on one side of the peninsula we lived on (facing the tower), then ran 2,000 feet of wire through the forest to our houses, we could have telephones for the first time in our Alaskan bush experience.
The first thing we had to do was clear a trail through the woods and string the wire up hill, down dale, cutting through mossy dead falls, climbing over roots and other obstacles. My dad had a frightening fall down a cliff at one point, but was okay. Then we attached the radio box to a post, positioned above a driftwood-strewn, rocky beach with a clear line of sight to the tower a couple miles away. Then my dad had the honor of installing his own telephone. Those are the sorts of skills you learn when you live in the bush with no expert readily available.
The first wire we strung we kept off the ground, tying it from tree to tree. But we found this didn't work when trees fell on it in high wind storms. In addition, mice and squirrels chewed through it.
When that first line shorted out my dad and I strung a second line (after re-clearing the trail--the forest never stops trying to take over). I remember skiffing over to work on the line and finding a group of kayakers on the beach. They were suprised to see us, thinking they were entirely alone in the trackless wilderness.
They wanted to know what we were doing, and when we said we were laying a telephone line they didn't believe it. How could there be a landline telephone in such a remote place?
I remember one man saying to me, "It must have been a culture shock for you to suddenly have the world able to contact you at any hour." It was, indeed. I never really did adapt to having a phone and being accessible to anyone who called. And even putting the ringer on its lowest setting always made me--and the cat--jump. I was actually glad when the radio telephones went the way of the dodo, replaced by cell phones. Even though our cell phone reception is very irregular and dropped calls are common. We only have one cell phone that we keep where the signal is best and we don't dare move it by so much as an inch from the "hot spot." I use it for messages and stick with snail mail and email to have real conversations.
There are many fond memories for me of the old, lone telephone in the village. Like the time our tiny school participated in the Battle of the Books. We kids, dressed in our winter coats, huddled around the phone, our breath hanging in the air as we took turns answering the questions. The number for that phone will always stick in my mind, even though it was such a difficult one: 946-1234.
Now even the phone booth at the head of the dock is gone--after the phone company abandoned it and said it was up for grabs, a local marched off with it, intending to make it into an outdoor shower.
Sometimes when I'm in the village, and it's a really quiet day, I expect to hear the phone ringing and ringing from its perch on the tree.
Photos: Top: Alaskan artist Rie Munoz painted this image of one of the local fishermen--the father of two girls I went to school with--making a call at the old phone. Rie Munoz painted it after visiting friends in the village. This painting hung in my grandmother's house for years. Second: The telephone tower is the only landmark in the wilderness to indicate a community. Third: A tourist at the old phone booth at the head of the dock (note the moss growing on top of the booth), next to the community bulletin board. Fourth: the telephone wire we strung through some pretty wild country. Fifth: My dad hooking up our radio telephone in the woods. Bottom: At the head of the dock.
In 1750 a Tlingit Native village in Thomas Bay in SE Alaska was obliterated by a massive landslide. On that day, more than 500 people died in what came to be called Geey Nana, or "The Bay of Death."
Some time slightly before 1900, a ship carrying Chinese immigrants hired to work the Alaskan salmon canneries wrecked just outside Thomas Bay. It was reported that all souls were lost.
In June of 1900 Harry Colp, visiting Thomas Bay for the first time, was told by a prospector named Charlie "The strangest Story Ever Told." It has come to be one of the most famous and eerie stories in Alaskan folklore. As such, it is sold on the Alaska State Ferries by the gross in paperback-pamphlet form, read curiously by tourists and locals alike.
The prospector, who had canoed alone into the Bay of Death, told Colp and his companion that he'd found gold-rich quartz in Thomas Bay, but he'd never prospect it. And then he told them why.
Charlie gave them the story on his finding the quartz and then said, "I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks.....Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again.
"Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn't call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys--yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.
"I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long clawlike fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick; while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe...is a mystery to me.
"When I came to, it was night, and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukoi Island, cold, hungery and crazy for a drink of water....You no doubt think I am crazy or lying....Never let me hear the name Thomas Bay again, and for God's sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat!"
Who, or what, were these terrifying "devils"? To this day people speculate, particularly online. Some think they were the Tlingit devil, the half-man, half-otter Kushtaka. Others insist that they're Alaskan relatives of Bigfoot. Many people dismiss the story as simply the imagination, combined with drink, of a prospector who'd spent too much time alone in the bush.
I heard an interesting, and much more plausible than Bigfoot, theory at a small dinner party of long time Alaskans. One man said he'd grown up in the Thomas Bay area with his father had hunted mountain goats and explored the caves there, which were large enough for people to have lived in if they'd needed to.
"My father found out there'd been a shipwreck not that long before the prospector was on the scene. No lives were saved...supposedly. But what if some of the passengers, which were mostly Chinese immigrants brand new to the country and not speaking a word of English, made it ashore? They could have lived in the caves and subsisted on mountain goats, using the hides for clothes when theirs gave out.
"Imagine this loner prospector, absolutely certain he is the only human for miles in any direction, hiking alone in eerie country believed to be cursed by the Natives, and suddenly he's face to face with desperate, excited Chinese men, a race he may never have met before, dressed in goatskins and yelling in a language completely alien to him. Naturally, they pursued him when he ran--he was their only hope of getting back to civilization. No wonder they yelled and tried to grab him. And no wonder he was terrified!"
The tragic story haunted me so I researched it and was able to verify everything but the exact date of the shipwreck--the reports only said before 1900--or the vessel's name. The only thing sure was that a ship had been reported lost in the vicinity of Thomas Bay.
HistoryLink.org, Essay 10919 confirms that Chinese immigrants were shipped to Alaska from the late 1800s to the end of the first decade of the twentieth century to work in the salmon canneries.
Another online source noted that many of these Chinese immigrants were formerly, in their homeland, goat herders.
And, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mountain goats are plentiful in Thomas Bay and they use different "cliff habitats" during various seasons of the year.
It seems entirely possible and horribly tragic that these marooned Chinese immigrants believed they were going to be rescued when they saw the lone prospector hiking toward them.
Could anything be more natural than that they'd run toward him? They were on him in a moment, screaming excitedly and reaching for him in their malodorous goatskins, sores--possibly from a poor diet--oozing, their "wrong" skin color and shape of the eyes...all combining to create a creature that has gone down in Alaskan history as a spectral monster and bogeyman.
But what if they were simply marooned men of another race, unable to communicate through lack of a common language...and one man's terror of the unfamiliar?
Pictures: Top, Thomas Bay; Second, paddling the canoe into "devils country"; Third, Alaskan mountain goat, detail of a painting by Bob Hines; Fourth, the product that brought the Chinese immigrants to Alaska; Bottom, Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.