A rescue helicopter takes off the remaining crew and passengers of the Prinsendam who weren’t able to get into a lifeboat. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

A rescue helicopter takes off the remaining crew and passengers of the Prinsendam who weren’t able to get into a lifeboat. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Prinsendam’s unsung heroes

Accounts of the burning and sinking of the Holland America cruise ship Prinsendam in the Gulf of Alaska in the fall of 1980 all mention the risks, hardships, and hazards involved in what is often called “the greatest air-sea rescue operation in maritime history.”

Considering that every one of the more than 500 passengers and crew survived* despite an incoming typhoon engendering 30 foot seas and low visibility, the title is well-earned. But invariably left out of the story is, perhaps, the single most important factor in the remarkable success of the rescue operation: the fact that the passengers were elderly.

The Prinsendam was an intimate-sized cruise ship, 427 feet long, typically carrying around 350 passengers and 200 crew members, and went by the nickname “The Old Codger Boat” because of its consistently all-elderly passenger list.

Also typical of every trip, the passengers came with a wide array of medical conditions. On this trip there were people suffering from diabetes, malaria, epilepsy, cancer, and more than a few were in wheelchairs. Ages ranged mostly from people in their 60s to 80s. The crew, on the other hand, were all young, in their 20s and 30s.

At midnight on Oct. 4, 1980 the Prinsendam was 120 miles out in the Gulf, south of Yakutat and north of Sitka, when fire broke out in the engine room. At first the captain, after giving orders to contain it that were inexplicably delayed in being implemented, considered it a minor mishap and presented it to the passengers in that light. Some passengers who were awakened by the announcement were so reassured by the captain’s report that they went back to sleep, or called it a night and retired to their cabins.

One hour later, Captain Wabeke declared the fire out of control and sent a radio call requesting immediate assistance.

The passengers took the situation in their stride, although many of them, as they were herded to the upper deck, were in their sleepwear. Despite the fact that the ship was dead in the water, there were no lights in the dark night other than the aurora dancing overhead, and the smell of the smoke drifted through the air, there was a lot of joking, laughter, and even singing. Among the ship’s musicians leading the passengers in song was a young man who would later come to worldwide fame as the New Age singer/musician Yanni.

With rescue ships and helicopters from Juneau, Sitka, Yakutat, and Canada on their way, not to mention the supertanker Williamsburg fully laden with crude and circling back from its southbound route, Captain Wabeke gave the order to abandon ship.

There were some difficulties in filling and lowering the lifeboats, partly due to the young crew’s inexperience and emotional reaction. One account says, “While the officers tried to maintain order, many of the crewmen climbed over the passengers in a panic to get aboard the lifeboats.” Some boats were stuffed so full that people could not move at all, even to push themselves away from the side of the listing cruise ship as the waves banged their lifeboat against the steel hull.

In every instance recorded in the following rescue, the elderly passengers, despite the stressful conditions, their medical problems, lack of adequate clothing, and the deteriorating weather, conducted themselves with exemplary stoicism and compliance. The rescuers had no problems with them.

The same could not be said of the young crew. When the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Boutwell sent a launch to pick up survivors in the heaving seas, they ran into difficulties. Seaman Dan Long recounts: “We went out and got the first lifeboat. Well, the crew from the Prinsendam, they were just panicked. We wanted to take the elderly on board first. They [the crew members] were climbing over the elderly and climbing into our boat because they were so afraid. It was this total mayhem. Our boat quickly filled up and we couldn’t get the elderly off the lifeboat.”

One of the older passengers spoke of the panicking crew members with compassion, saying later that while the elderly had no interest in dying that night, they also had lived full lives and had learned the merits of endurance and the good sense in allowing themselves to be helped. The young had their whole lives ahead of them, she noted, and were suffering from the urge to help themselves and had a sense of desperation that sometimes got the better of them.

The doctors treating the survivors as they were brought aboard were struck by the poise and self-command of the passengers. “Don’t worry about me,” said one slight, elderly man with a temparature of 104 degrees F. “I have this malarial attack once a year. Go take care of the sick people.”

While some survivors were shuttled by helicopter to Yakutat and Sitka, the majority were aboard the supertanker Williamsburg. There were scenes of the elderly comforting young crew members who were in states of post-traumatic stress.

It’s hard to find, in the accounts of the Prinsendam disaster, evidence of the elderly being given credit for the unprecedented success of such a massive rescue operation in such a remote area accompanied by such bad weather. In fact, when the phrase “elderly heroes in crisis situations” is put into a search engine what pops up are stories about young people rescuing the elderly.

Air Force Doctor Don Hudson, treating the elderly Prinsendam survivors aboard the Williamsburg, said he felt that the age of the passengers contributed to a smooth and orderly operation, essential under the conditions in which the rescue was conducted.

“If we had been dealing [solely] wi th people 35 or under, there would have been more panic,” he noted. “These older people had things in perspective. Their lives were straightened out. The wisdom of the years really paid off.”


*According to his family, Prinsendam passenger Paul P. Noyes died later from injuries sustained aboard the ship, unrelated to the fire or the rescue operation.

For a fuller account of the disaster see http://www.alaskaforreal.com/blog/alaska-cruise-ship-disaster-the-prinsendam.

• Tara Neilson writes the column Alaska for Real for the Capital City Weekly and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com. She lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Kethchikan.

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