We had no rudder, no motor, no water, no food. The radio didn't work; the lights didn't work. Nothing worked. I'd say the success of the rescue was a whole succession of miracles," said W. Richard Boyce of Silver Spring, one of the 320 passengers plucked from the ill-fated Prinsendam's lifeboats off the coast of Alaska two weeks ago.
For 10 chilly hours -- eight of them standing up -- Boyce, 66, a retired procurement officer for the Department of Defense, waited in the Pacific in his overloaded lifeboat while helicopters ferried people to the oil supertanker Williamsburg.
In a lifeboat not far away was an 83-year-old neighbor, Alice Hinkley Williams of Silver Spring, as well as Ann Corey of Silver Spring and Thomas and Elvira Tuccinardi of Wheaton.
Williams and Boyce both live in Silver Spring's Rossmoor Leisure World. They had not known each other, but she heard about him last week from her insurance agent and he heard about her at his bank. They met recently and compared notes.
The 9,000-ton Prinsendam was a week out of Vancouver and about 140 miles off the coast of Alaska when fire forced the Orient-bound travelers and the 200 crew members to abandon ship Oct. 4. The ship sank a week later.
A calm sea marred only by a mild afternoon storm, the proximity of the Williamsburg and the good fortune to have abandoned ship at the crack of dawn rather than at dusk helped make possible one of the biggest single-ship rescues in recent years.
Dutch shipping officials are trying now to piece together the story of the near disaster, determine the cause of the fire and check the crew's actions. They heard testimony from the 25 to 30 members of the deck and engine crew in a closed hearing in Saddle Brook, N.J., two weeks ago, with U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials sitting in.
The Dutch Shipping Inspectorate took the information back to the Netherlands for further investigation. The ship is registered in the Netherlands Antilles and part of the investigation will be conducted there.
Holland America Cruises, operator of the 427-foot, 7-year-old liner, is refusing to release a passenger list, saying it would be a violation of privacy. A number of local people were on the cruise, including about five persons from Montgomery County. The names of other area persons who were on board were not known.
Safely home, the passengers are collecting newspaper clippings of their rescue, looking for familiar names and clues to acquaintances briefly made whose addresses were left behind in the luxury liner that burned and sank.
The absolute calm of the passengers, many of them elderly, surprised both Williams and Boyce. A voice on the ship's public-address system announced there was a fire in the engine room and asked: "Would the passengers please come up to the lounge for their own comfort?" recalled Boyce.
"The captain kept saying, 'Don't panic, don't worry, everything's going to be all right.' He said that for about an hour and then he said, 'I'm sorry, but we're going to have to abandon ship,"" said Williams.
The passengers lined up at the lifeboats they had been assigned during a drill, but officers grabbed them and pushed them into other lines.
"When our lifeboat was in the water, it kept hitting against the side of the Prinsendam, and a big iron pulley hit me on the head,' she said.
"Our lifeboat had a motor but as soon as we hit the water, the motor stopped," said Boyce. His lifeboat was in the water by about 5 or 6 a.m. The ocean was calm and sometimes they could see as many as four other life-boats.
Passengers' counts of the number of people in their lifeboats and the availability of provisions differed from statements made later by the ship's operators.
Holland America Cruises denied reports that there was no food or water.
"There was enough food for a week and drinking water for a few days," said Robert Natt, executive assistant to the president of Holland America Cruises in New York City. "It is absolutely incorrect that there was no food or water."
He said the liner was inspected by th Coast Guard in May and that the company has its own inspections every month.
He said there were six lifeboats on the ship: Two motorized boats had capacities of 46 persons each. Four other boats could hold 99 persons each and 12 rubber rafts could carry 23 persons each. The only craft that didn't make it off the Prinsendam, the official said, was one of two tenders, an auxiliary craft that is sometimes used to take people from vessel to port when the ship cannot dock.
Boyce's lifeboat's capacity was 46. He said he counted about 70 persons in it. There was no room to sit for the first eight hours, until a helicopter lifted out about 20 persons. Williams was in lifeboat Numbers 4, which was not motorized and had about 86 people in it, according to an estimate by Williams' daughter, Elizabeth Vernon of Mountain Lakes, N.J. Wiliams said she was squeezed in so tightly she could barely move.
"When we got in the lifeboat, a great big heavy man was sitting on me," said Williams. "I said 'You'll have to get up. I can't stand it.' He said, "I can't. There are three people on me.' I said, 'Well that means there are four people on me!'"
The Williamsburg came into view around 8 or 9 a.m.
"When we did see this tanker, we felt pretty secure," Boyce said. Helicopters began lifting passengers out in baskets, began lifting passengers out in baskets, one at a time, a process that took until late afternoon. By then a storm was churning the sea. "Whenever we hit the top of the wave we could see the tanker."
"There were small planes flying over-head all the time, as if to say 'Don't be scared,'" said Williams.
But with the storm the helicopters left, and the six people remaining in Boyce's boat waited two more hours for a Coast Guard cutter to pick them up. b
Williams had broken her back in February, but she sat for nearly 12 hours on a 12-inch-wide plank, cold, with a pillow tucked around her legs for warmth.
"There was nothing to support my back, only two pipe railings about 18 inches apart. Every once in Awhile I got so I couldn't stand it and got up and looked at the water, and it wasn't very far away.
"I just sat. You just sit and wonder what will happen. Time eventually passes and it took a long time to pass. And it was uncomfortable. But if anybody was afraid, you wouldn't know it."
"The quiet was the thing that amazed me most," said Ann Corey, 47, of Silver Spring, who was traveling with her 75-year-old mother. "Anything we could have said would have been a waste of words."
She was in the same lifeboat as Williams and another area couple, Thomas and Elvira Tuccinardi of Wheaton. They had met at Dulles Airport when she spotted the "Prinsendam Cruise" tag on their luggage.
"Mrs. Williams and my mother and other people of that age were just fantastic. Nobody could move. My mother had to throw up in her hand and toss it over her shoulder. But everybody was compassionate," she said.
"We just sat. We didn't talk. One man gave a prayor in what sounded like a foreign language. One woman led us all in the Lord's Prayer. But the rest of the time it was as still as if we were in church," said Williams.
Williams said she saw what she thought were the Northern Lights, "down along the horizon -- purples, reds, lavenders, oranges.
"I said to the man next to me, isn't that beautiful? And he said 'uh.'"
Williams said she did not get seasick as did many of the passengers, even though she is "the most seasick-prone person in the world."
Boyce said he, too, lost his usual senses. "I just got in a state of suspended animation. I didn't get hungry or thirsty or seasick." He praised the Coast Guard and said he felt Holland America did the very best it could in handling the accident.
"It's fading away," said Williams, "but it'll never go out of my mind. That's impossible. When you get in that basket [dropped to the lifeboat from a helicopter], it swings back and forth. One woman, they dropped her basket in the water. She was 82 years old and sopping wet.But she was just as charming -- everybody was just happy to be saved."