More than 500 persons, many elderly, who abandoned a burning cruise ship off Alaska were rescued over the weekend from storm-tossed rafts and lifeboats in what was called an incredibly successful end to a harrowingly nightmarish modern day saga of the seas.
No serious injuries were reported among the 320 passengers and approximately 200 crew members who went over the side of the liner Prinsendam Saturday as it burned out of control about 140 miles off the southeast Alaska coast.
Despite winds that whistled at up to 30 knots, whipping waves to heights of more than 20 feet, most of the passengers and crew were transferred from their crowded, pitching lifeboats to the supertanker Williamsburg, which brought them into port at Valdez, Alaska, late last night.
"Rain was pouring down and it was really rough," said Len Bennett, 69, an Australian who was in a smaller group flown to shore earlier by helicopter. "The wind was blowing the spray. There were tremendously high waves. We were settling down for the night and sure nobody would ever find us. Then suddenly . . . a big yellow Chinook [helicopter] appeared above us."
The Coast Guard cutter Boutwell reached Sitka last night with a third contingent of passengers -- mostly Americans -- and crew members who had set out a week ago from Vancouver, B.C., on what was to be a 30-day cruise to the Orient aboard the Prinsendam, a seven-year-old, 427-foot Holland America liner.
Describing the rescue at sea of more than 500 persons as unparalleled in recent times, Coast Guard Rear Adm. John D. Costello called the weekend's operation, carried out in stormy weather without apparent serious injury, an "absolutely incredible" success.
For Sonia Criss, 48, of Toronto, Canada, on the cruise to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary with her husband, William, 53, the weekend's experience "was a nightmnare, I don't know what else to call it."
"We were in the water for 12 hours and every wave seemed to get bigger," she said. "We were so cold I don't believe we could have survived a night in the boat." She was finally plucked from her lifeboat by Coast Guard helicopter and flown to shore at Yakutat, Alaska.
John Gyorkos, a Huntington Beach, Calif., lawyer, said that when he was picked up by helicopter from a crowded Fiberglas lifeboat, "the seas were rising. When the seas started washing over the rail into the lifeboat, the cold was almost unbearable."
Passengers, many in nightclothes, were summoned on deck early Saturday after fire followed an engine room explosion of unknown cause. When the blaze could not be controlled, the order to abandon came. The Williamsburg, nearest to the scene, steamed to the rescue, while the Coast Guard sent them and equipment by helicopter from Kodiak, Alaska, 300 miles away, to crew members who remained aboard to battle the blaze. When it could not be controlled, they left in the last lifeboat.
"We tried our best," said third officer Paul Welling.
By late Saturday, all but one of the rafts and boats had been found.
"When we took a head count [Saturday night] we realized that we were about 18 people short," a Coast Guard spokesman said. In addition, two paramedics, lowered to a raft earlier, could not be accounted for.
A Coast Guard C130 search plane and the Boutwell found the missing raft yesterday and the 20 persons it carried were taken aboard the cutter.
One passenger in one of the lifeboats complained that some of the crew members in it attempted to push their way into a helicopter pickup sling ahead of elderly passengers in the boat.
Meanwhile, those brought first to shore were taken from Yakutat to Sitka, where 11 were examined in the hospital. Two were admitted. One complained of back and abdominal pain from being knocked about in a lifeboat. The other was treated for exposure.
About half a dozen passengers were from Maryland and another was from Virginia. Names were not available.
A spokesman for the cruise line said last night that passengers would be flown from Alaska to Seattle as soon as air transportation could be arranged. f
Louise Steele of Worcester, Mass., said at least 80 persons, including two in wheelchairs, were crammed into her lifeboat. Waves washed in, she said, "we couldn't move" and the boat's engine failed. But, she said, nobody panicked.
"We're all very thankful and we're also lucky to be alive," she said.