This is an account of a survivor, who was onboard the cruise ship MS Prinsendam when a catastrophic fire caused it to sink in the Gulf of Alaska in 1980. In 2010, the Coast Guard ranked the rescue as one of the greatest of all time, due to the distance the search and rescue crews traveled to reach the ship, and the fact that all 520 people onboard survived.
MS. Prinsendam, October 1980
I exited my cabin 466 B Deck around Midnight. As I did the fire doors began closing behind me. As I ran, I called to my cabin mate. Clearly he heard me and met me up topside. I never heard the captain's announcement.
Passengers started to arrive, mostly in their bedclothes; I guess they expected to return to their cabins. At first they stayed in the lounge, but it soon filled with smoke and everyone was outside exposed to the elements. It was an unusually calm sea and still night.
All was eerily calm until the order to abandon ship came around 5:30 am. Then all hell broke loose. Most people didn't know where they were supposed to go. I was at Lifeboat 6. At this point the lounge, which was a few feet away from me, exploded with glass breaking and fire getting closer to us. Once on the ocean, I remember the seas were very calm at this point and we started to move away from the ship.
It seemed like hours before the rescue operation started. The weather was progressively getting worse. The waves were higher, so much so that when we where between them we were not visible.
It was very cold. Finally a Coast Guard helo appeared over us and two very brave young men in wetsuits jumped out of the chopper and into the ocean. They boarded the boat and started to hoist passengers one at a time onto a T-bar into the helo. I believe I was the last person taken in that trip.
I have not thought of or written about this in many years, but it did shape how I look at life and magnifies how fleeting life can be. I owe my life to many. This has been a longtime coming, and I am grateful to be able to now thank all those responsible for saving so many others and me on that day in October of 1980.