35 years ago this month, the Coast Guard carried out one of the most dramatic rescues in its history. On October 4 and 5, 1980, more than 500 passengers and crew from the Prinsendam were pulled out of lifeboats in the Gulf of Alaska as the cruise ship burned and sank. By sunrise October 5 everyone was safe and accounted for.
But as the Coast Guard’s job ended, Sitka’s began. Survivors, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, began arriving in Sitka by plane from Yakutat and from the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell.
KCAW’s Rich McClear was about to leave KTOO in Juneau to found Sitka’s public radio station. In Part 2 of our series on the 35th anniversary of the Prinsendam rescue, McClear meets with some of the people who lent a hand – and much more – to the Prinsendam survivors.
Holland America laid off of all its Alaska employees at the end of September, 1980, so there were no staff in Sitka. The line instead called John Litten, manager of Sitka Tours, and asked him to make arrangements for survivors.
John Litten: We realized immediately, ‘Oh man, have we got something on our hands.’ There were close to 200 people. They were coming off wearing garbage bags, night gowns, some of them were wrapped up in curtains that they ripped down off the walls of the ship…it was just crazy, watching them walk down the long gangway. I started thinking, ‘Okay, here we have all of these elderly people, they’ve come off the ship with virtually nothing. Many of them are going to need medications and they are going to need toiletries.’ Not until I saw them coming down the gangway did I think about clothing.
So Litten called several shopkeepers and asked them to open their stores. He told them to run a tab. They would figure out payment later.
Bonnie Brenner ran a women’s clothing store. She said, “All of these ladies were in there. They didn’t have underwear ‘cause they had left the ship in whatever they were wearing. And so we clothed them. I’ve never seen anything like it. We just kept selling everything.”
Shirley Robards, who worked at John McDonalds men’s store, recalled, “We didn’t have enough stuff for that influx of people. It was a lot of people. They cleaned us out. I forget what we did, it was $41,000 or something. So, poor Prinsendam.”
Jill Scheidt owned Vi’s Apparel. She said, “Back then it was the wealthier people who cruised. It wasn’t yet into middle America cruising.” Many of the survivors were placed in the Sheffield House, now the Totem Square Inn. Vi’s was a first stop for women off the ship without any clothes.
Scheidt: They came into the store in their nightgowns with mink coats on and so forth. Some with shoes, some without.
McClear: What types of things did they buy?
Scheidt: They bought mostly clothing that they could wear when they were planning to leave the next day on an airplane.
McClear: Did they pay or did the line pick it up?
Scheidt: The Line picked it up and said, ‘Go ahead and just create a charge account and we will make sure it gets to the right people and you’ll get paid. And it did, and very rapidly actually.
McClear: With the line picking it up did some people clean you out?
Scheidt: They really didn’t, they got what then needed. No one seemed to be excessive.
But there always a few in every crowd, like the guy Shirley Robards encountered. She remembered, “There was one gentleman out of all of them I remember, and I think he was really quite well to do. He wanted the pants shortened and he wanted this and he wanted that and he was the only one who ended up with more than what he needed just to get home. I don’t think a thousand dollars was very much to him.”
But a bigger problem was medications. Many of the passengers were elderly and on maintenance drugs. Litten recalled, “Paul Lunas had a medical office practice right across from the bookstore, upstairs. He came down. So did Ed and Mary Spenser. Their practice was just out Halibut Point Road. And they came into the hotel and they sat down. They just had people walk up and say what medications were you taking, what were the dosages. And they, without any kind of physical exam, just started writing them scripts.
And they went across the street to Harry Race Pharmacy, which had opened for the occasion. Harry Race also sold out of toothbrushes and other toiletries.
Throughout the rescue Sitkans contributed their own blankets and other goods, and some offered home cooked dinners. “The townspeople poured out,” said Litten. “When they heard that these people came out without clothing, people were bringing donations into the Sheffield. It was just incredible.”
Because of the weather, most passengers stayed in Sitka for two nights. Some stayed a few days longer recovering in the hospital.
The first survivors arrived in Sitka on Saturday afternoon, October 4. On the following Friday, October 10, the Sentinel announced ‘Last Out.’ On Saturday, October 11 the Prinsendam, still on fire and under tow to a shipyard in Portland, sank off of Cape Edgecumbe in 9,000 feet of water.
In Part 3 of this series, McClear discusses some of his own memories of the Prinsendam disaster, and the challenges of reporting on a high seas rescue before the internet, digital photography, or satellite communications. Listen to Part 1: The Rescue.
Click here for more historic photographs of the Prinsendam sinking, courtesy of the Alaska State Library.