|Last Cruise of the Prinsendam by Joseph P. Blank (Reader's Digest, November 1983, p 237- 264)|
The luxury liner was three days out of port when the fire–the seaman's worst nightmare–broke out. Five hundred and twenty-four lives were in peril, and only a miracle could save them. Here is the story of the greatest air-sea rescue in maritime history.
"No matter how many cruising adventures you have thrilled to in the past, this is the one you're likely to remember the longest." So promised the Holland American Cruises brochure for the voyage of the M.S. Prinsendam from Vancouver in Canada to the Far East. For 319 passengers who boarded the graceful blue-and-white ship on September 30, 1980, the statement turned out to be horrifying true.
The Prinsendam, 427 feet long, had been built in 1973 at a cost of $20 million and was designed solely to render luxurious service. The crew numbered 205: officers and technicians mostly Dutch, the rest of the staff mostly Indonesians. In their hands, the ship becomes a self-contained world equipped to sustain its passengers' lives on the alien ocean in utter ease and pleasure–and to guard against every hazard, of which the most dangerous at sea are collision and fire.
In all, six decks were devoted to passenger comfort, the centerpiece being the Promenade Deck, extending from one end of the ship to the other in an unbroken chain of handsomely decorated public rooms. Toward the bow, directly beneath the bridge was the intimate Prinsen Club, offering a superb view from its windows of the ship's progress, and boasting a small dance floor, a bar and a lounge area.
A passageway led to the main lounge, with its cluster after cluster of chairs, cocktail tables, sofas, exotic plantings and flowers, large dance floor, bandstand, and another bar. One then passed around an obstruction, formed by the funnel, into the Lido restaurant, a casual dining area that looked out over the open rear deck to the large swimming pool. The entire Promenade Deck from bow to stern was encircled by open deck, where passengers could stroll, jog, engage in sports or simply lounge.
One deck below the Lido restaurant, and just forward of the funnel area, was the main dining room capable of seating 200 people. Passengers could dine in either room, but whichever the choice, the food was superb, and presented in seemingly endless quantities from early morning until the traditional midnight buffet.
But this was only one of the ship's two worlds. Past the swinging doors, through which Indonesian waiters hurried with laden trays, was another rarely seen by the coddled passengers.–the world where the crew both lived and worked. Here the guiding principle was not luxury but utility. The kitchen gleamed with efficiency, its refrigerators and freezers holding the tons of staples and delicacies needed to feed crew and passengers
Beyond the kitchen area, the atmosphere changed again, at first subtly and then more radically, as one descended from deck to deck. No fine wood paneling or prints of famous art decorated the walls here. Though freshly painted and scrupulously neat, the walls were plain steel, the decks not teak or carpeted, but steel again, often ribbed to prevent slipping. No effort was made here to disguise the thick fire proof doors and water tight bulkheads.
During a descent into the ship's core, the noise level increased, a thrumming vibration at first, and then a deafening throb of power emanating from the engine room. The smell of oil became pervasive, despite the strong ventilation systems. At last, in the engine room was the great beating heart: the huge, oil fed engines that sped the ship through the waves at 19 knots.
As well as any liner afloat the Prinsendam was constructed to cope with danger. The Lloyd's Registry of Shipping gave the vessel its highest safety-construction rating: +100A1. The design incorporated both vertical and horizontal fire boundaries, meant to provide protection for passenger spaces and, in the worst case, allow time for abandoning ship. The latest and best technology–foam applicators, full-flooding carbon dioxide, remote controlled ventilation and fuel shut-down systems–supplanted the old method of shipboard sprinkler system, which in general use had proved less reliable.
The most recent U.S. Coast Guard inspection of the Prinsendam has occurred in May 1980., five moths earlier. It validated that the vessel was in full compliance with U.S. fire-safety standards, and that those systems were adequately maintained.
Despite such precautions, it was here in the engine room that a series of events began that were to change forever the lives of all aboard.
The Prinsendam sailed as scheduled, making its way up the island seaway of British Columbia, and two days later putting into Ketchikan, Alaska. Next day the ship idled off the awesome, blue-white walls of Glacier Bay, and then veered away from the coast into the Gulf of Alaska. By midnight it was more than 100 miles from land in an ever-roughening sea.
At 12:40 a.m., on October 4, the midnight watch took over the Prinsendam's engine room. Assistant Engineer Robert Kalf routinely replaced a filter in the low pressure fuel system. As he walked away, he heard a "bang" behind him. A four-foot jet of oil was spurting into the air, splashing onto a hot pipe. Originally the pipe had been encased in insulating blankets of fiberglass, but sometime in the past, probably during an overhaul, the insulation had been removed. For reasons no one would ever know, the protective covering had never been replaced.
The oil, hitting the bare pipe, which had been heated to a hellish 800 degrees Fahrenheit, burst into flames.
"They Sang on the Titanic Too"
The reaction was swift. An Indonesian, Mohamad Ali, also had seen the gusher and leaped up the iron staircase to the enclosed control room, shouting to 3rd Engineer Jaap van Hardeveld, in a mixture of pidgen English and Dutch: "Jaap, pompa brandstop leaking!"
Instantly van Hardeveld sounded the engineers' alarm and shut down the No. 2 engine where the fire was concentrated. He assumed that there was a leak in the high pressure system, something that had happened several times before; with the engine dead, the fuel supply would stop in a few seconds.
Meanwhile, Ali slithered down the stair case, grabbed a fire extinguisher and climbed up alongside engine No. 2, aiming at the hot pipe. He was joined by 2nd Engineer Johan Repko, who rolled out a fire hose and began spraying the pipe. Seven minutes had passed.
Alerted by the engineers" alarm, Chief Engineer Albert Boot, at 44 a veteran of many years at sea, had dashed to the control room as well.
Quickly appraising the situation, he ordered the 25 water tight doors throughout the ship closed, the ventilation halted and fire valves in the air-conditioning system shut. Smoke and poisonous vapors were billowing from the fire.
At the fire itself, Repko was replaced by van Hardeveld, who took up an extinguisher beside Ali while Repko went to the control room. The oil continued to spurt out. Later it would become almost certain that the leak had not occurred in the high pressure system, but in the low-pressure fuel supply, which was not affected by stopping the engine. The blaze continued. Overcome by heat and fumes, van Hardeveld, blacked out briefly; then he rushed to A Deck, two decks below the Promenade, and cut off the fuel supply for all tanks.
About 1 a.m., ten minutes into the crisis, Engineer Boot gave the first warning to Capt. Cornelis Wabeke, 52. They had a fire and it was getting worse. Shortly afterward, Boot heard explosions in the engine room. He at once went to the bridge to speak personally with Wabeke and advise him to flood the engine room with carbon dioxide to suffocate the fire. Wabeke was shocked to hear the situation was so serious. A tall, trim man of authority, Wabeke faced one of the toughest decisions of his 15 years as a Captain. Releasing the CO2 would make it impossible to enter the engine room for several days to make repairs. But after conferring with Boot, he ordered the preparations made. A general alarm went to the crew.
Wabeke had another difficult duty. It would be necessary to warn the passengers, but he did not want to upset them unduly. He believed the CO2 would do the job, and furthermore, as was usual on such extended cruises, many of his passengers were elderly people. Though most were vigorous, a few were in wheelchairs and a number suffered ailments ranging from diabetes to heart conditions.
William Powell, a real-estate broker, was just preparing for bed when the public-address system in his stateroom came alive: "This is your captain speaking. There is a small fire in the engine room. It is under control, and there is no cause for alarm. If you are experiencing smoke, proceed to the main lounge and the Lido restaurant on the Promenade Deck."
"Damn," said Powell, "there goes the trip."
On the ship's first day out of port, the normal boat drill had been held. All six lifeboats were lowered to rehearse the procedure for abandoning ship. Some passengers saw the drill as a lighthearted affair, arriving at their assigned positions with life jackets half on or incorrectly fastened, the men making jokes about the possibility of sinking. Now, though some of the passengers came through the halls with washcloths or handkerchiefs over their noses to filter out the increasing smoke, and the crewmen in heat-resistant silver jump suits were clear evidence of the emergency, many passengers arrived in the lounge without life jackets, and others were clad only in pajamas, nightgowns and robes. When a group of shipboard entertainers launched into a melody from Oklahoma!, one man commented, "They were singing on the Titanic too, before it went down." All in all, it did not seem a serious matter.
With the general alarm, two fire brigades began rolling out hoses. But they produced only a useless dribble. The three fire pumps had lost electrical power. There was an emergency pump, however, housed in the propeller-shaft tunnel. This was now sealed off behind a watertight door, but the pump could be turned on by remote control. The pump functioned both as a bilge pump and as a fire pump, depending on the position of a set of valves. At 1:30 a.m. Engineer Repko tried to start the pump, to no avail. One more thing, had gone wrong.
A few minutes later, the engine room was cleared of all personnel and sealed off, and the CO2 was injected. During the next 20 minutes Captain Wabeke and Chief Engineer Boot patrolled the ship, looking for "hot spots." Of particular interest was the funnel, running up between the Main Deck lounge and the Lido restaurant, one deck above. For nearly an hour the funnel had been venting the heat of the fire below and spewing into the nigh sky. One report had described it as "red hot." Wabeke and Boot now found it Luke warm, evidence to them that he fire was going out. Nevertheless, the captain ordered an XXX radio message sent to the Kodiak Coast Guard Station–a request for assistance but without the urgency of an SOS.
Then he turned again to his passengers, most of whom had, because of smoke, left the Lido restaurant and gone into the Lido terrace and other outside areas. It was a decidedly chilly night, and few were properly dressed. Wabeke believed it was safe to open the fire doors in the public rooms and kitchens to air out the smoke, and bring the passengers down for warmth and refreshments. So the doors were opened, and moments later the main dining room was afire. It might have happened anyway; or the fire might have needed the additional oxygen fed in by the open doors. No one will ever know. What was certain was that now the fire had spread to the superstructure of the ship and the situation was beyond control. At 2:55 a.m. an SOS went out, and the crew prepared to abandon ship.
Into the Boats
SO FAR THAT NIGHT luck had not smiled on the Prinsendam. But now things began to change. The ship could no longer shelter her passengers in regal comfort, but she could save their lives.
The Prinsendam was almost due south of Valdez, the terminus of the trans-Alaskan pipeline, and that morning the supertanker Williamsburgh had set out with 1.5 million barrels of crude oil, bound for Corpus Christi, Texas. Although she required only a crew of 31, the 1099-foot behemoth had enough deck space to house several hundred people. When the radio operator picked up the Prinsendam's distress call, the tanker was only 90 miles away. Master Arthur Fertig changed course at once and made for the stricken ship.
The U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in San Francisco also caught the distress signal and alerted its Rescue Coordination Center in Juneau Alaska. By 2:29 a.m. the 387-foot cutter Boutwell, in port in Juneau, had rounded up its crew and set out. The nearest fully equipped Coast Guard air station to the Prinsendam was at Kodiak Island, some 429 miles west. The station there launched a four-engine HC-130 search plane to pinpoint the Prinsendam's position and to act as on scene commander for any rescue operation. Two big HH-3 helicopters also took off, and the Sitka air station launched two more.
Close to 4 a.m. Lt. Cmdr Joel Thomas arrived at the site. Easing his helicopter, searchlight beaming over the length of the ship, he saw nothing alarming. When Captain Wabeke radioed that there were no injured persons requiring evacuation, Thomas banked his aircraft away and headed toward the Williamsburgh, now 50 miles off, planning on picking up some fire fighting equipment. He was 3 miles from the tanker when the abrupt command came to reverse course. Wabeke had given the order to abandon ship. It was 4:54 a.m.
Of the Prinsendam's six lifeboats, two had motors and could accommodate 46 people; the four others, holding 99 people each, were fitted with T-shaped that could be pushed and pulled to power a propeller. In addition, there were two covered, motorized tenders and 12 inflatable life rafts that could be readied easily. The boats hung from their davits on the bridge deck, just above the Promenade Deck. At the captains order, the davits swung out-board, crewmen lowered the boats to the Promenade, and the gates in the railing were opened. Thanks largely to the crew and the captain, the launching of the craft, an immensely complicated operation, went off with scarcely a hitch. One of the tenders got hung up in its davit and could not be lowered, but the other boats soon began to take on their passengers.
As frequently happens in emergencies, a few dominant figures stood out from other participants. Among the passengers, it was Henry J. Heinichen, a retired Army colonel, who was with his wife, Leila, was a veteran of several Prinsendam cruises. Rousted from bed, the Heinichens had assembled with others on the Lido terrace. The kitchen was closed, and as time passed, the crew made do by offering dishes of ice cream to the passengers, many of whom were already thoroughly chilled. "Outrages," Heinichen said. Emergency or not, this did not conform to the high standards he expected of the Holland America Line.
Drawing a steward aside, Heinichen suggested he open the bar. "It's locked up, sir," was the reply.
"Well, break the damned lock," the colonel commanded. The steward snapped to it, and Heinichen supervised the dispensing of warming jiggers of brandy. Then he organized a crew of men to setm up deck chairs and helped in the distribution of blankets. When the supply was exhausted some passengers tore down the lounge draperies for warmth.
Passenger Audrey Gotal found her lifeboat full and volunteered to board a raft intended only for crew. "We inflated one of the rafts, which is like an igloo with two openings at opposite ends through which you enter, I took off my shoes because the heels could puncture the raft, but I was wearing a coat, sweater, slacks, gloves. a roof over my head, I thought. Nice and dry. Snug. This is going to be good. I sat in the bottom of the raft surrounded by twenty crewmen. No one had secure the two openings and water came pouring in. Suddenly I was sitting in seven or eight inches of water–and that's where I remained."
By 6:30 a.m. the Prinsendam had discharged six lifeboats, four life rafts and one tender. About 40 men remained on the ship, including Captain Wabeke. As he watched the boats drop one by one over the side and make off into the darkness, he feared for the many elderly passengers. How would they cope with the rigors of an open boat in frigid water?
To Henry Heinichen, aboard lifeboat No. 1, the whole event had an air of unbelievability. Only a few hours ago he and Leila had swept across the dance floor in graceful tango. Now they were adrift in waves running up to 15 feet and swallowing hard to fight the nausea.
about 7:30 a.m., Heinichen was what appeared to be smoke on the horizon. Soon he could discern the faint outline of an approaching ship. "Hey, turn this boat around he said to the crewman at the motor. "There's a ship coming and we're headed in the wrong direction." It was the Williamsburgh, so heavily laden it had only 20 feet of freeboard and resembled a floating atoll more than a vessel.
The tanker came along side, and crewmen dropped securing lines and lowered a Jacob's ladder. Then two of the crew came down to assist. Even so, the evacuation of the lifeboat took over an hour, as one by one the terrified passengers grasped the swinging ladder and slowly ascended to the Williamsburgh's deck. At this rate it would take well into the next day to lift all the passengers from the water. The weather was worsening. Hypothermia was a real threat. Moreover it seemed unlikely that the other lifeboats could reach the tanker. All were drifting aimlessly.
The Heinichen's craft had a motor; the other power boat had failed. So crowed were the rest of the boats that the hand-operated T-bars could not be moved, and in any case their momentum was insufficient against the wind. The rafts, of course, had no power at all. Nor could the gigantic Williamsburgh maneuver around such tiny craft. If the passengers were to be rescued–and each passing hour counted now––would have to be by some other means.
In addition to the Coast Guard aircraft sent to the scene, Elmendorf Air Force Base at Anchorage had dispatched a search and rescue helicopter. Since the burning ship lay 380 miles to he south, the helicopter was accompanied by an HC-130 modified to refuel it in the air. Also, 600 miles south of Juneau, the Canadian Recue Coordination Center at Comox, B.C., readied two helicopters and four planes.
The on-scene commander, circling the stricken ship, gave the order to begin lifting survivors by helicopter from the boats and shuttling them to the Williamsburgh. The Canadian helicopters, which were due in by the after noon, would assist. The Coast Guard cutter Boutwell, already on its way, would arrive about 1:30 p.m. If weather or time interfered with the air mission, this highly maneuverable ship could take over.
Shortly after sunrise, the was alive with the Coast Guard's four helicopters, the command HC-130, the Air Force's Jolly Green Giant" and the flying "gas station." Rescue work demanded coolness and coordination. Bruce McInick brought his HH-3 down to 30 feet above a lifeboat...then 25 feet...20. At that distance he couldn't see the boat, and with the sea churning he couldn't be certain he was holding his hover position. He had to rely on his hoist-cable crewman, Michael Oliverson.
Wearing an earphones-and-microphone headset, and attached to the aircraft by a nylon belt, Oliverson leaned out the door and talked his pilot down over the bobbing target. The rescue basket–2½ by 4 foot, and 18 inches deep–swung in the wind. It was operated by power winch, but Oliverson had to play the cable manually to lower it straight down into the boat. If allowed to sweep across the boat it could crack passengers' heads. As he waited for a survivor to climb into the basket, he winched the cable in and out to avoid excess slack.
Once the basket was loaded, Oliverson started his winch just as the lifeboat was riding the top of a wave. The survivor suddenly found himself dangling in midair, ascending. Pulled into the aircraft, some passengers were so scared–eyes shut, hands clenched around the edges of the basket–that a third crewman had to work to get them out.
It took a helicopter at least 30 minutes to hoist up a load, skip over to the Williamsburgh and unload. It was a daisy-chain operation: as one chopper lifted off the helipad, the command ship overhead gave the next permission to land.
By early afternoon the crews were exhausted. The hoist men's heavy leather gloves had worn through to the palms from playing the steel cable. Their muscles grew cramped from hauling in the loaded basket, but they kept at it. Melnick's crew alone rescued 110 people.
Many of the passengers, despite their plight, displayed the same kind of strength. Octogenarian Elsa Hutson found the whole experience an adventure. During the first hour at sea in lifeboat No. 3 she didn't mind the boat's pitching motion. But the wind picked up, and soon she was soaked from the waves crashing into the boat. She vomited. The cold penetrated her bones, and exhauston swept over her. Still unafraid, she told herself to keep a positive point of view.
She thought about events in her long life. She vividly recalled the mornings of her childhood when her mother sent her off to school, saying, "May the spirit of the Lord go with you and protect you and make your path easier. The Lord is my Sheppard, I shall not want." It always made her feel better to remember that scene. She repeated the prayer now.
Marjorie Czeikowitz's legs were slow to recover from a stroke she had suffered two and half years earlier. But she and her husband, Richard loved to travel; they'd decided her wheelchair was no reason not to make the cruise. Without phenobarbital, she feared she might have a seizure. Yet she knew she would survive this experience and board another ship for a cruise–no question about it.
A helicopter dipped in and hovered above lifeboat No. 4, in which the Czeikowitzes huddled. The rescue basket descended and swung into the side of the boat. Hoisted a few feet it swung again––and hit Marjorie on the side of the head, knocking her unconscious. "She'll be all right," a crewman calmed her frantic husband. "But you go up in the basket and tell the helicopter crew what the situation is."
Marjorie revived aboard the Williamsburgh, where a physician examined her. He urged her to stay flat, and that night he slept on the floor beside her bunk.
Still crowded together on boat No. 4 after the Czeikowitzes left were some 80 survivors, among them schoolteacher Jeannie Gilmore. During the night, it had seemed to her that everybody had begun to vomit at the same time. Some tried to be genteel, saying, "Excuse me, please." But the vomited where they sat; there was no room for people to move to the side of the boat even to relieve themselves. Yet when the sun rose Gilmore began singing "oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." She too, was certain of survival: "I had no intention of dying in the Gulf of Alaska."
Shortly after noon a helicopter flew to the smoldering Prinsendam to begin removing the remaining crew. This proved more difficult than the lifeboat operation. The stern of the dead ship was rising and falling in great thrusts and yawing some 50 feet; twice the hovering helicopter missed the stern with the hoist.
The last to be lifted off was Captain Wabeke. It was a terrible moment in his career. To the helicopter pilot, the Captain looked cold and weary. "But despite the awful hours he had passed, he was wearing his dress blues, with a white towel around his neck. He was very dignified as he shook hands and thanked us."
Flying South from Elmendorf AFB, flight surgeon Capt. Don Hudson had worried about the problems ahead, especially about the elderly suffering from hypothermia. "The body temperature drops," he explained later, "and all vital activities and functions slow down. The heart is subject to irregularities. If we had one cardiac arrest, the sight of our trying to resuscitate the person could arouse fear among the other passengers."
On the tanker, he told his patients to keep warm with a blanket around them–the helicopters had unloaded plenty–and to drink as much water and as many warm liquids as they could hold. He urged each passenger he examined to keep an eye on others around him and seek help immediately for anyone in trouble.
Some survivors were cold as marble, totally unresponsive. A few were staggering into walls. One disoriented man told the doctor, "I think I'll have the caviar; then a prime rib of beef, medium rare."
By and large, however, Dr. Hudson was struck by the poise and self command of the passengers. "Don't worry about me. I have this malaria attack once a year," said a slight, elderly man with a temperture of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. "Go take care of the sick people."
One woman was deeply depressed because she had left behind a large diamond ring that represented most of her life's savings. Seen a few hours later, she seemed to be feeling better. "I'm alive," she said. "I can start over."
By late afternoon the tanker had some 370 refugees aboard. Dr. Hudson dispensed nearly 100 nitroglycerin tablets to heart patients, and nearly all the pills necessary to combat nausea. But he issued only 6 tranquilizers and 12 sleeping pills.
"We were lucky," the doctor concluded. "If some of them had been out in the boats for severalmore hours, I'm sure they would have succumbed."
The tanker's 31-man crew handled their 370 unexpected guests as if the occasion were commonplace. The cooks, assisted by men from the "Prinsendam's kitchen, provided every passenger on arrival with coffee or tea, and sandwiches. These remained available day and night, and hot meals were served as well.
Clothing in the Williamsburgh's slop chests was handed out, and crewmen even opened up their personal closets. Size-8 women wound up with men's size-38 jeans, extra large T-shirts and size-10 shoes.
The crew also turned over their quarters to the exhausted survivors. Elsa Hutson hoped to find something soft to lie on. Wandering into a room she saw one of the Prinsendam's young entertainers lying in bed, crying. Hutson tried to comfort her. The young woman said, "Thank you. You remind me of my grandmother, and I love her very much."
"Would you mind moving over and letting your grandmother crawl in with you?" she did.
At 6:10 the Boutwell reported: "All personnel from the Prinsendam recovered. Fire still burning,"
Quite jubilation rippled through the Coast Guard Recue Headquarters at Juneau. "Everybody had come out of this mess okay," reflected Cmdr. Richard Schoel. "Nobody dead. Nobody seriously injured."
But at 7:20 p.m. came a startling message from Elmendorf AFB that not all Air Force rescue officers were accounted for. "Two sergeants, John Cassidy and Jose Rios, are unreported. Where are they?"
What had happened? Captain Wabeke had informed rescue headquarters that he was lowering six boats. And six boats, as well as the four rafts, had been positively confirmed as being emptied of all occupants. (An accurate count of passengers was not possible, because four of the helicopters could not be refueled in the air. After shuttling several loads to the Williamsburgh, they had headed to their base to refuel, taking a load of survivors with them each time.)
Senior officers at rescue headquarters studied photographs of the Prinsendam taken from the air that day. Enlargements showed davits for eight boats–the six lifeboats, mentioned by the captain, and two tenders. One tender was still visible, hung up on a davit. So seven boats had been launched, and one was still at sea, lost. Search aircraft were useless in the black, fog filled night. It was up to the Boutwell to find the missing craft.
The LOST VESSEL, lifeboat No. 6, had been launched in the pre-dawn hours with a full load of passengers. A Dutch crewman in charge said, "Row, we have to get away from the ship; it can catch fire." By "row" he meant operate the push-pull T-lever, but as in the other lifeboats, this was difficult, and slowly boat No. 6 had drifted away into the night.
Irving Brex, one of the passengers, had become separated from his wife, Isabelle, in the confusion of abandoning ship. He worried about her safety. But was also concerned about his ability to endure the night. a diabetic, he had left his insulin behind in the stateroom. Somehow he would have to draw on all his reserves. Near him, however, three barefoot women in nightgowns huddled silently, chins on chests. Spray drenched them. Brex, who had brought an extra sweater, handed it to one of them.
After daylight Brex occasionally saw a helicopter in the distance, a cheering sight. Finally one flew towards them. It was the Jolly Green Giant from Elmendorf AFB under the command of Capt. John Walters. In addition to his hoist man, he carried two specialists, Sergeants Cassidy and Rios, dressed in insulated wet suits, who were prepared to drop from a low altitude into the sea. Walters needed their expertise because his aircraft did not carry a basket for rescue work. It used a projectile-shaped forest penetrator which, once down, could be opened into a seat into which the passenger had to be securely buckled. Cassidy and Rios would perform this task and make sure the projectile did not strike the boat.
Ten feet above the waves, the two men dropped. Rios climbed into the boat to help the survivors: Cassidy remained in the water to retrieve the penetrator each time it was lowered. But after pulling the penetrator to the boat more than 20 times, he was utterly spent, sick from swallowing saltwater and being slammed repeatedly against the boat. Helped aboard, he leaned over the side and vomited–and vomited. The hoist man now had to maneuver the rescue device through the water to where the two sergeants could haul it aboard.
Soon thereafter, Captain Walters was summoned to assist in taking men from the deck of the Prinsendam. It was the first of several interruptions for lifeboat No. 6. By the time Walters could return, fog was seeping in. The wind beat harder, and rain mixed with sleet began to fall. Rios was buckling in the 50th passenger when a wave suddenly lifted the boat high and swung the bow. The cable got caught between the rudder and stern and, as the boat slid down into a wave trough, snapped as if it were a thread. The penetrator was lost. For this aircraft the rescue mission was over. The time was then 1:50 p.m.
Walters informed the on-scene command plane that the boat No. 6 still contained 25 or 30 people. Subsequently, a partially loaded Coast Guard helicopter picked up a few of them before departing to refuel ashore. Some 20 men and women, plus Rios and Cassidy, remained.
Cassidy, exhausted and cold, couldn't stop vomiting, but still he put the passengers first. Irving Brex, his own condition worsening rapidly, watched him in admiration. "He was deathly sick." Brex said, "He'd go to the side throw up, and then turn around and comfort us."
Late in the afternoon, using survival equipment brought with him, Cassidy tried making radio contact. No response. Then he heard an aircraft droning towards them, concealed by the fog. Experience had taught him not to waste a flare on it–if you can't see the target, the target won't see the flare–but he activated his electronic beacon. The signal didn't last long enough for an aircraft to home in on the source.
As night approached, a passenger said, "They've forgotten us; they're going to leave us here to die."
"Oh, no," Cassidy assured him, "our Air Force people know we're out here. Rescue is just a matter of time. Then he had all the passengers move to the front of the boat, where he and Rios pulled a tarpaulin over them. "Your body heat will build up under there," he said.
Cold but alert, Cassidy and Rios remained in the open stern. Thirty-five-knot winds pelted them with rain, and the seas heaved to 30 feet.
After seven hours of peering into the night Cassidy detected a revolving light in the distance. It was the Boutwell, on its diligent search. Rios lit a flare while Cassidy caught the beam of the search light with a mirror and flashed it back to the ship. The Boutwell eased towards them and stopped alongside. It was 1:15 a.m.
Hauled up to the deck of the Coast Guard cutter, Brex said, I can't stand," and collapsed. Six pairs of arms lifted him and carried him to a table in the infirmary. He was stripped, fed intravenously, bathed twice, and given solid food, and anti-seasickness pills and insulin. Then he was wrapped in blankets and carried to a bunk. He said later, "I was never so mothered in my entire life."
The last man to leave lifeboat No. 6 was Sergeant Cassidy. By then it was 2:30 a.m.
The FOLLOWING AFTERNOON the Boutwell reached Sitka with 87survivors, to join with 60 others already flown down from Yakutat. That evening the tanker Williamsburgh–arrived at Valdez with its roster of 370 more. In both towns, officials from Holland America Cruises asked drug and clothing store to open. Passengers were given whatever they needed at the line's expense, and local residents overwhelmed them with kindness.
Most survivors were euphoric. They had lost precious possessions, but they were safe. After bathing and putting on clean clothes–either from a store or the contributions of generous Alaskans–many sat around their hotel bars before dinner, laughing frequently, bantering and generally behaving like people on holiday.
At the Valdez hospital Marjorie Czeikowitz was examined and found unharmed by the blow to her head. a pharmacist delivered her pre-ordered medications and the staff lent her a wheelchair, saying, "Don't worry about getting it back. We'll pick it up after you and your husband leave the airport."
On October 6, a week after her glittering departure from Vancouver, the Prinsendam drifted aimlessly at two knots, her insides still smoldering. The Mellon, a Coast Guard cutter, tracked her at a distance of one and a half miles in a kind of a deathwatch. Early that afternoon, the cutter's crew heard a small explosion and saw a rising plume of heavy black smoke. Captain Wabeke, aboard the cutter, attributed the smoke to the ignition of 15 rolls of carpeting stored on the top two decks.
The following morning a nine-man team, including Captain Wabeke and Chief Engineer Boot, was airlifted to the ship. Arie Van Noort, a Holland America Cruises vice president and former Captain of the Prinsendam, had flown to Alaska from New York to supervise a salvage operation. The team landed beside the swimming pool, aft of the Lido restaurant. There, under Webeke's supervision, they cut through the anchor chain and made fast a steel hawser to an oceangoing tug that had come out from Vancouver. By 4:30 p.m. the tow was secure.
In the meantime, the weather had worsened; the team could not be evacuated. They made a hurried inspection. The source of the fire, the engine room, was sealed off, and in all likelihood the blaze there was out. Buy because the main dinning room had also caught, the fire had been free to burn both upward and downward. Wabeke was astonished at the damage the fire had cause in so short a time. He instructed the team to inflate one of the canopied life rafts. They the set it up next to the empty swimming pool, where the men spent the night, camped in the Prinsendam's ruins, like refugees returning to a war devastated home. No comforting throb of engines lulled their fitful slumber––only the wind and waves.
Towards dawn, the fire reflashed with a great roar and burst out thick portholes as if they were cellophane. The team radioed the Mellon, and at 7:30 a.m. a Coast Guard helicopter hoisted the men to safety. Water was pouring in the broken portholes, causing a 15-degree list that increased with each hour.
To Van Noort, it seemed the end. He had been involved with the Prinsendam since its inception, watched its birth from delivery of the first steelwork to the yards. He was chief mate on the maiden voyage and later became captain, until going ashore to take up his executive duties. "She was like a child to me," he said.
Within 24 hours the list had increased to 30 degrees, and the ship was making languid rolls that submerged the starboard side of the main deck and allowed immense amounts of water to pour in. The port side was so hot that splashing waves turned to steam.
On October 11, a week after the engine room flared into flames, the list increased to 40 degree, exposing the port stabilizer. By 8:30 a.m. the tug's tow line had been released, and the cruise ship rolled ponderously, remained on her starboard side, and slowly sank. "One of the worst moments of my life," said Captain Wabeke.
No evidence remained of one of the great ship disasters of our time, and of the larges totally successful air-sea rescue operations in maritime history. Nothing remained, except memory.
In November 1981 the Dutch Marine Court of Inquiry held hearings on the Prinsendam disaster. On December 7 it found that the captain, chief engineer and chief mate (in charge of the fire brigades) had erred in dealing with the emergency. Those parties held to be partly responsible for the disaster were disqualified from serving on any vessel of the Dutch merchant navy for periods ranging from three weeks to two months.
Weak as these penalties might appear, the reputations and careers of these officers were severely damaged. But such assessments are not entirely adequate. Judgment was passed on men who acted, some of the time, imperfectly. On those responsible for establishing safety regulations that are truly safe, no verdict was passed.