As Juneau’s 2021 cruise season winds to a close in a blustery October, some remember a day more than four decades ago when a cruise ship with an engineering casualty turned into the Coast Guard’s biggest and most successful rescue.
On Oct. 4, 1980, the Prinsendam, a Holland America Line cruise ship, caught fire in the engine room, requiring the more than 500 passengers and crew to abandon ship.
The Prinsendam was due to cruise from Vancouver to Asia, said Stephen Corcoran in his book on the event, “None were Lost: The Prinsendam Fire and Rescue.” Corcoran was a lieutenant commander and operations officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell at the time of the event.
The Prinsendam departed British Columbia on Tuesday, Sept. 30, calling in Ketchikan, and visiting Glacier Bay on Oct. 3, Boutwell said. The fire began just after midnight, early on the morning of Oct. 4, Corcoran said an engineman reported a fire between two of the vessel’s main engines. At this time, the Prinsendam was approximately 168 miles west-north-west of Sitka, just under 200 miles from Juneau as the crow flies.
A ship in distress
Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and by about 1 a.m. (Alaska Daylight Time) a distress message was transmitted, Corcoran said. It was copied by a Coast Guard communications hub and relayed to Coast Guard District 17, where Chief Petty Officer Eugene Coffin III was standing watch.
“We got a call from Communication Station San Francisco that the Prinsendam has sent out an XXX. The only way I can describe that is it’s an alert that something is going wrong,” Coffin said in an interview. “I got a call shortly after that from Kodiak that they’d got an SOS from the same ship.”
Coffin contacted Coast Guard Air Station Sitka and ordered them to launch their aircraft, Corcoran wrote. Around the Gulf of Alaska, hundreds of Coast Guardsmen, Air Force personnel and even members of the Canadian Air Force and civilian vessels responded, as well as emergency department personnel throughout the entire Southeast. The tanker Williamsburgh, recently departed from Valdez, was crucial to the whole operation, as hundreds of survivors were plucked from lifeboats adrift in the cold ocean and deposited aboard, Corcoran said.
The cutter USCGC Boutwell, the largest cutter in the area, was in Juneau on a port visit, and put to sea within the hour of receiving the call, even though crew were scattered all over Juneau, with the ship’s bosun literally jumping aboard as the cutter cleared her lines, Corcoran said.
Terry Sinclair, then a lieutenant commander stationed in Kodiak as a pilot of an HH-3F Sea King, a search and rescue helicopter, was the second aircraft on the scene. Sinclair was woken up in the early morning and deployed to assist in what was then damage control efforts. Lt. Cmdr. Mike Wrighter was the lead pilot in Sinclair’s aircraft.
“The initial call was that they were on fire and they needed fire fighting equipment,” Sinclair said in a phone interview. “We went to Valdez and picked up four people and firefighting equipment, which was never used. Then, we flew to Yakutat.”
Search and rescue
Cmdr. Joel Thuma, launching from CGAS Sitka, had been the first helicopter to launch, while an HC-130 launched from Kodiak and orbited the scene, acting as on-scene commander until surface vessels arrived, Sinclair said.
“When Joel’s helicopter from Sitka arrived on scene, they didn’t tell him to bring any firefighting equipment,” Sinclair said. “They were supposed to be the lifeguard while somebody’s tender would take a raft full of people to the Williamsburgh, where they’d climb the Jacob’s ladder.”
Helicopters and aircraft streamed towards the Prinsendam, hundreds of miles out in the Gulf of Alaska, as the fire situation aboard deteriorated and passengers and crew were forced to take to the lifeboats and abandon ship at around 5:20 a.m. ADT, Corcoran said.
Among the military aircraft responding were Canadian SAR techs aboard modified CH-46 Sea Knights redesignated CH-113 Labradors, and Air Force pararescuemen (PJs) from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The HH-3E the Air Force was flying was capable of in-flight refueling, Sinclair said, increasing its utility.
When the decision was made to abandon the firefighting mission, Sinclair said, the aircraft committed fully to the recovery effort of the people in the lifeboats, winching them from the ocean with their cable hoists.
“The guy in the right seat does all the flying and hoisting,” Sinclair said. “The guy in the left seat keeps track of how much we weigh, where everyone’s crammed in the back so we’re balanced, and how much fuel we have to get where we’re going.”
Having the passengers of the Prinsendam, largely elderly and battered by cold water and wind in the open lifeboats, climb the ladder up the side of the ship proved untenable, Corcoran said, so they were hoisted directly from the boats instead. Corcoran wrote that one crew chief operating the cable hoist had so much contact with the cable that day that he wore clean through the new glove he was wearing.
“The Air Force procedures were a little different than ours. They put their PJs down to help people onto their jungle penetrator (a cable-hoisted rescue seat designed to punch through forest canopy),” Sinclair said. “Meanwhile, their refueling tanker went to help find one of the Canadian helicopters that had a fire onboard.”
One boat missing
Injuries were fairly light across the evacuated crew and passengers, Corcoran said. Exposure, shock, and dehydration were the most common and often easily fixed by hot liquids and hot showers. Hundreds were hoisted and deposited aboard the Williamsburgh or picked up by the Boutwell upon its arrival at the scene, Corcoran said, before being ferried to Yakutat and Sitka.
“Here’s what Alaskans did — they welcomed everybody,” Coffin said. “They brought in these survivors and gave them food, clothing, bedding.”
The Air Force helicopter eventually set down on the tanker Sohio Intrepid and shut down, to await the return of the tanker allowing it to aerially refuel. A shaky headcount, confused by the distribution and transit of the rescued crew and passengers meant that Lifeboat 6, with 20 passengers and two PJs, Staff Sgt. John Cassidy and Sgt. Jose Rios was nearly lost in the shuffle, Sinclair said.
“Here came the (Air Force) C-130 pilots come dragging in — they looked pretty bedraggled — and they said, ‘where are our PJs?’” Sinclair said.
The search coordinators redeployed surface assets out to search for the missing boat. The buoy tender USCGC Woodrush, which had rushed from Sitka at its top speed of 12 knots, was the first to spot the missing boat, miles from where it was thought to be, Sinclair said.
“The Woodrush had been steaming all night to get to the scene. They heard the case was off but still continued to the scene,” Sinclair said. “They saw a tiny light on the horizon, and didn’t see anything on the radar. They steamed in that direction. About half an hour later, they saw a light, and then a flare.”
The Boutwell recovered the passengers and PJs from Lifeboat 6 nearly 25 hours after the fire broke out aboard the Prinsendam, Corcoran wrote, as more assets for further support and final sweeps arrived in Yakutat.
“It started out with a 1,500-foot overcast or so, but was basically clear with 5-foot seas. By the end of the day, it was 15-foot seas, and the ceiling had come down,” Sinclair said. “Those Air Force PJs rigged a tarp over the ship to protect them from the weather. They had them singing songs and stuff.”
The passengers in Lifeboat 6 had the longest exposure to the elements, staving off shock and exposure only through internal fortitude, Sinclair said.
“Our flight surgeon was the national cold water rescue expert. He volunteered for Kodiak because he thought he might learn a thing or two,” Sinclair said. “He said the people in the last lifeboat survived because they had the will to survive.”
Towns and organizations pulled together all over Alaska to rescue, recover and house the 519 survivors of the fire, Sinclair said.
“As this thing was all evolving, it was pretty obvious that there was going to be a lot of rescuing, so Kodiak put together a maintenance team and flew them to Yakutat,” Sinclair said. “They basically set up a service station. They also flew in a couple extra crews.”
The USCGC Mellon arrived on-station from further south, taking over as on-scene commander as the Boutwell moved off-station to disembark survivors at Sitka. “It was just, we were tired. It was just another mission. It just happened to be a pretty big one,” Sinclair said. “We didn’t realize how big it was until the newspaper article started showing all the people.”
As rescue operations wound down, plans began to be laid for the Prinsendam’s future, Sinclair said. A salvage tug was going to tow it south, Sinclair said, but before that could happen, it began taking on water, developed a list, and sank on Oct. 11, a week after the fire. While the ship was lost, not a single passenger or rescuer was, Coffin said.
“All passengers and crew members were saved from the ship without any major injury,” Coffin said. “It’s the only rescue of its kind that’s been done in Coast Guard history.”
Sinclair echoed this, calling the operation, which pulled in personnel and agencies from across the state and up and down the West Coast together remarkably smooth.
“It just seemed like it was a little bit chaotic, but it was a coordinated chaos,” Sinclair said. “For all the different services involved, and all the different frequencies, it all went really, really well.”
A bronze plaque now stands in the lobby of the Hurff A. Saunders Federal Building, recognizing the military and civilian responders to the fire.