For Actions on October 4, 1980
Gallant Ship Award Citation:
During the early morning of October 4, 1980, the WILLIAMSBURGH, loaded with crude oil, and en route to Texas from Valdez, Alaska, monitored a distress signal from the Dutch cruise ship M/S PRINSENDAM. The PRINSENDAM, in the Gulf of Alaska, with over 560 passengers and crew aboard and bound for the Orient, was reported to be on fire. When the alarm sounded aboard the PRISENDAM, the passengers and crew crowded into lifeboats in rough seas and temperatures as low as 35°. The WILLIAMSBURGH immediately diverted its course and proceeded to the location of the PRINSENDAM. The WILLIAMSBURGH was the first vessel to arrive on the scene at 0600. Maneuvering close to the lifeboats, the WILLIAMSBURGH was able to rescue a lifeboat of survivors and bring them safely aboard by 0722. At 0748, survivors in other lifeboats were being lifted one by one from their lifeboats and transferred to the deck of the WILLIAMSBURGH by U.S. and Canadian helicopter air rescue units. As well as assisting in this continuous operation, several of the WILLIAMSBURGH’s officers and crew manned an empty PRINSENDAM lifeboat and successfully picked up PRINSENDAM survivors from life rafts. The rescue operation continued through deteriorating weather and rising heavy seas for ten hours until the WILLIMSBURGH was released by the U.S. Coast Guard at 1605. The WILLIAMSBURGH set its course for Valdez with close to 450 survivors of the PRINSENDAM on board. The remainder of the survivors were rescued by other air and sea rescue units. The officers and crew members of the WILLIAMSBURGH unselfishly extended their personal clothing, quarters and food to the survivors. On October 5, at 1830, the survivors were disembarked at Valdez. Miraculously, no lives were lost in this joint U.S.-Canadian air-sea rescue operation, the largest such rescue to date in maritime history.
T/S Williamsburgh was built in 1974, for Seatrain Lines, by their subsidiary Seatrain SB. Seatrain SB specifically acquired the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the construction of “Very Large Crude Carriers” (VLCCs). These VLCCs were a strategic response to rising energy costs in the early 1970s, and were designed by the Maritime Administration and designated T10-S-92a. The first three Seatrain SB turbo tankers, Brooklyn, Williamsburgh, and Stuyvesant, were unprecedented in American ship construction. Each was over 1,000 feet long, held 1.6 million barrels of oil, and had a cruising range of 15,000 miles. At 225,000 deadweight-tons, Williamsburgh was the largest commercial vessel ever built in the United States when it launched in 1974. Williamsburgh’s range and size gave it global sailing capability. In 1980, it worked the waters of the Pacific Northwest running crude oil from Alaska to Texas.
On October 4, 1980, Williamsburgh carried a full load of crude oil from Valdez, Alaska to Galveston, Texas, Captain Arthur Fertig in command. A little after midnight, radio officer David Ring received an SOS communication:
PASSENGER SHIP PRINSENDAM/PJTA POSITION 57,38 N 140,25 WEST FIRE IN ENGINE ROOM FLOODED ENGINE ROOM CABON DIOXIDE CONDITION UNKNOWN PASSENGERS 320 CREW 190
Williamsburgh reported its position to Prinsendam as 90 nautical miles south of the burning vessel in the Gulf of Alaska. Prinsendam responded, “MASTER ASKS YOU TO COME.” Willamsburgh turned North and increased speed to 17 knots with the intention of providing any assistance possible.
Holland America Line built the cruise ship Prinsendam in 1973, at the Shipyard de Merwede in the Netherlands. The blue and white vessel was the latest of five in Holland America Line’s fleet. It was also the smallest, with six decks and a 390-passenger capacity. On October 1 1980, Prinsendam set out on a 65-day Pacific cruise from Vancouver, Canada to Java, Indonesia. Passengers looked forward to port calls in Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Bali. The two-month cruise was popular with retirees and most of the passengers were over the age of 65. Prinsedam was approximately 120 miles south of Yakutat, Alaska, on October 4, 1980, when fire broke out in the engine room. It was the third day of the cruise.
The fire on Prinsendam started at 0040, when a fuel line erupted in the engine room. Fuel gushing from the leak spilled onto a hot pipe and the fuel immediately burst into flames. The crew attempted to stop the leak by powering down the engines, but were unsuccessful. At 0100, Captain Cornelius Wabeke took command. By then the fire was so hot the crew decided to retreat, seal the engine room, and fill it with carbon dioxide to starve the fire of oxygen. Prinsendam issued a distress signal when this too failed to extinguish the flames. Williamsburgh, SS Sohio Intrepid, freighter Portland, and the Coast Guard’s 17th District in Juneau, all received the signal and immediately organized a rescue effort. The closest Coast Guard cutters were the USCGC Boutwell, in Juneau, and the CGC Mellon, 550 nautical miles away. It would take the Coast Guard cutters 12 hours or more to reach the burning vessel. The best hope for the passengers were Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force rescue helicopters and the Williamsburg - only five hours away.
By 0200 Prinsendam experienced small explosions in the bowels of the hull and the passageways and guest quarters filled with black acrid smoke. Captain Wabeke ordered confused guests to the main deck. Many passengers wore nothing but pajamas and blankets. At 0345, the crew attempted to flood the engine room, but the water pumps failed after fire severed electrical wiring. The conflagration now worked its way into the ship’s dining room and could not be stopped. The ship would either be hollowed out by the flames, sink, or both. The passengers could no longer remain safely aboard. Captain Wabeke ordered the vessel abandoned at 0454.
When Williamsburgh arrived on scene at 0630, Prinsendam was burning and lifeboats and rafts filled with survivors drifted anywhere from two to five miles away in the open water. Williamsburgh was thought to be the perfect vessel for the rescue. It was full of Alaskan crude, so it had a stable roll and a deck only 20 feet above the waterline. Williamsburgh’s size could provide lee protection from the wind and the ship’s superstructure and massive deck could hold all the of Prinsendam’s passengers. The tanker also featured two helipads to assist rescue helicopters. The only problem was how to get the passengers from the life rafts and boats onto the Williamsburgh.
The elderly passengers struggled to climb a jacob’s ladder the 20 feet to the Williamsburgh’s deck. Survivors were weakened by age, illness, a lack of clothing, and cold water that filled the bottom of the lifeboats and rafts. Williamsburgh crew assisted survivors from inside the lifeboats, but the process of getting a single frail passenger onto the deck could take an hour or more. Many lifeboats drifted aimlessly and due west and closing in was the remnant of Typhoon Vernon. The rescue operation might be inundated with freezing rain, 40 knot winds, and 35 foot seas in a matter of hours.
Rescue helicopters initially provided light for the Williamsburgh’s crew. Air Force and Coast Guard helicopters now started to hoist survivors and carry them to the helipads on Williamsburgh. Rescue helicopters hovered above the lifeboats, as rescue swimmers lowered baskets and hoisted survivors one at a time. When a helicopter reached maximum weight, approximately 8 to 15 people, if flew to the Williamsburgh, unloaded and returned for more survivors. Helicopters returning to Yakutat for fuel brought Prinsendam survivors to shore with them.
The lifting procedure only broke down when rescuers tried to lift Prinsendam passengers from life rafts. Rotor wash from the helicopters was too powerful and risked capsizing the rafts. Williamsburgh’s Second Officer Kerry Horton, Second Assistant Engineer Paul Walker, Able Bodied Seaman Timothy Hagan, and Oiler David Kopp climbed aboard the first empty lifeboat to pull survivors from the rafts and deliver them to safety. The Williamsburgh crewmen motored from raft to raft recovering survivors until 1300, when worsening seas and a lack of fuel forced them to return to their ship.
Medical personnel from Alaska and Canada arrived at Williamsburgh by helicopter. Air Force Flight Surgeon Captain Don Hudson and Williamsburgh’s Third Officer Thomas McCaffery set up a triage center on Williamsburgh. Hudson’s team cared for more than 380 survivors, who suffered from a range of conditions, including: hypothermia, concussion, diabetes, heart problems and one case of reoccurring malaria. Staff from the Prinsendam’s kitchen helped the steward on Williamsburgh prepare sandwiches, coffee, tea, and hot soup for ten times the normal number of people aboard. Crewmen also offered their clothing and their quarters to the haggard Prinsendam survivors.
At 1730, Williamsburgh steamed for Valdez to unload survivors. Williamsburgh arrived at Valdez 14 hours later. Buses and ambulances waited on the dock. The last Prinsendam survivor unloaded at 2230 on October 5th. Final count for the rescue was 360 passengers, 190 crew, 13 cruise staff and two paramedics, with no loss of life. The crew of the Williamsburgh remained on duty from the beginning of the rescue until after the last passenger landed - a total of 44 hours. An attempt was made to save the Prinsendam, but it continued to emit smoke and take on water for seven days. On October 11, 1980, the Prinsendam took water through blown out portholes. It capsized and sank in almost 9,000 feet of water.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Maritime Affairs Samuel B. Nemirow presented the Gallant Ship Award to the ship’s Captain Arthur Fertig in New York City on May 21, 1981. Captain Fertig also received the American Merchant Marine Seamanship Trophy, a perpetual cup dedicated as a permanent tribute to deeds of extraordinary American seamanship and maritime skill, and a commendation. The crew received commendations for their role in the rescue. T/S Williamsburgh was laid up in 1984, and scrapped in Thap Sakae, Thailand, in 1994.
1. Williamsburgh is frequently also spelled without the “H,” and was named for the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Williamsburg. Williamsburgh, is how the ship’s name is spelled on the bow and stern and is the spelling used for the Gallant Ship citation.