Today 36 years ago, an engine room fire on a cruise ship led to one of the biggest coast guard rescues in history. A couple of Kodiak residents were players in the two-day rescue and remember that mission.
Before becoming the driving force behind the LegHead Report, Maggie Wall was one of the few women working in the Coast Guard, and she was a radio officer on Coast Guard base Kodiak. She recalls that night in 1980 she was on duty and received an SOS from the Holland America cruise liner Prinsendam.
“To be honest I was slacking off, and I was actually crashed behind the radio equipment, which you’re never supposed to do, but it was my last mid-watch and I was getting out of the Coast Guard. It was the perfect textbook SOS. He said fire, fire in the engine room, and I’ll never forget that. Fire, fire in the engine room.”
John Whiddon was a helicopter pilot on duty that night, and says the maintenance crew made a series of errors that led to the fire on the ship. Eventually, the captain was forced to order the passengers and crew onto lifeboats.
Whiddon says he and his co-pilot took off at about 3 a.m. and loaded up with fire suppression equipment at Valdez before heading to the location. The Prinsendam had run into trouble south of Yakutat.
“When we got there, the boat was obviously on fire, it was listing heavily to one side, I think to the port side, and all of the passengers were already off by then, and it was very low visibility. By the time we got there, there were at least two, I think possibly three, but certainly two helicopters from Sitka had got there – Coast Guard helicopters. There were several Canadian helicopters out there and there was also an Air Force helicopter out there.”
Whiddon says they hoisted up as many people as they could from the lifeboats and dropped them on a nearby oil tanker. He describes fuel as a limitation. He recalls at one point, they had just enough fuel to return to Yakutat. He says at that point they had been flying for 9 hours.
“And so I remember looking back into the helicopter and there was a lady who was completely bedraggled who was busy putting on lipstick, and way, way in the back there was one of the stewards who was actually unconscious ‘cause he was hypothermic and so I had a contrast, on one end of the helicopter you got a lady putting on lipstick and on the other end, the guy who was passed out because he was hypothermic.”
Another woman stands out in his mind, an elderly lady who got soaked during the rescue process. Whiddon says she was the last person the crew assisted down from the helicopter in Yakutat, where the media was waiting.
“I helped her down and these guys came over to her and said ‘Hey, can you tell us about it? What happened? What was it like?” And so she looked straight at the camera, and I was standing right next to her, and she said ‘Well, I’m 86 years old, and they dunked me, and I’m too old for this stuff.’ She used different words. We spent all this time, and all she could think about is she got dunked, and she’s right, she did get dunked… When I got back there was this big banner in this maintenance control area that said, 521 rescued, one dunked.”
He says he looks back on that event fondly because it was a great joint accomplishment. The Coast Guard, the U.S. Air Force, the Canadian forces, and the communities all pitched in.