It was about 1 a.m. in the cold, gray chill of the Gulf of Alaska, when the clangorous alarm bells began ringing on the Prinsendam, a sleek luxury cruise ship on its way to the Far East.
Friday night there had been the customary shipboard social festivities, the first big gathering for most of the 320 passengers, many of them elderly, on this month-long voyage out of Vancouver.
Singapore, conjuring up Joseph Conrad and an exotic Orient, would have been the first major port of call on this leisurely swing across the Pacific.
Then came the shrill bells, signifying a fire deep in the Prinsendam's engine room, jostling passengers and the crew of 203 from somnolence to action.
The ensuing pandemonium, it became clear by yesterday after a harrowing 36 hours, resulted in one of the most dramatic sea rescues of modern times -- in fact, a miracle, as U.S. Coast Guard pilots were calling it.
There were no injuries, no fatalities and every soul was safe, either hefted aboard a passing oil supertanker, which rushed to the scene, or carried to the Alaskan shore by the Coast Guard.
As the listing, 427-foot Prinsedam still smoldered at sea yesterday, Holland American Cruises, operator of the vessel, prepared to fly its rescued passengers from havens at Sitka and Valdez to Seattle.
A massive tragedy that might-have-been, possibly prompted by malfunctioning equipment aboard the $25-million, seven-year-old luxury liner, played second-fiddle to a momentous story of human courage and luck.
David Levin, a 77-year-old Californian wearing only a purple jogging suit, told of frightened fellow passengers, jammed into their lifeboat, singing "row, row, row your boat" to keep away the fear.
In other motorless lifeboats bobbing in the frigid water, some passengers hid under blankets and threw up.
"When we began, we were singing. The stars were shining and the sky was clear. But then it started splashing. And we couldn't see the tanker nor the Prinsendam [even though it glowed with the blaze from below decks] for a long time -- until a helicopter came," Levin said.
By the time the last of the passengers was hauled to safety late Sunday, the atmosphere had turned more menacing. "It was cold, it was raining, the wind was tremendous," said Richard Vanni of New York, a ship's entertainer. w
"They [the boats] ride everything -- 30-foot waves and they go right up and right down."
Passengers praised the Coast Guard and the crew of the Williamsburg, the supertanker, but some complained that lifeboats were overcrowded and that a few terrified young crewmen pushed aside elderly women to climb into rescue slings put down by the rescue helicopters.
"Skill and luck" in a sea swelling at times well beyond 12 feet made the tricky rescue operations a success, said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Duvall of the Coast Guard's Juneau station.
"We were just lucky in a lot of ways," Duval said. "The weather wasn't too bad for this time of year. The abandon-ship was done well and recovery was done well."
The shock of it all -- the awesome sense of tragedy averted -- might strike later. Betty Milburn and her aunt, Betty Clapp, both ot Tucson, Ariz., taken to the port of Valdez, made a bee-line to the Totem House restaurant.
"It was pretty hairy out there," said Milburn. "We've been promising ourselves a drink." To which Clapp, in her late 60's added, "Bring us two more doubles."
They were drinking Scotch whiskey after their ordeal. Like most other passengers, they left everything behind -- clothing, shoes, jewelry, luggage. Everything.
Louise Steele, wife of Worcester, Mass., publisher Richard C. Steele, said her only criticism of the abandon-ship precedure was that the lifeboats were overcrowded.
"They're supposed to hold about 60 people and there were at least 80 people in our boat. . . We couldn't move and the waves kept washing in," she said. At one point, a woman offered to recite a prayer and most of the passengers in the tiny boat joined in.
By Steele's account, the first hint of trouble came with the alarm bells and the captain, Cornelius Wabeke, ordering all passengers to the main desk. Most went topside only in their night-clothes.
"He told us not to be alarmed, that the fire was in the engine room," she said.
Unknown to the passengers, apparently, fire-fighting efforts deep inside the Dutch-owned vessel were not paying off. The fire spread beyond the containment doors of the engine section. Wabeke gave the abandon-ship order before dawn.
Launching mechanisms on at least two of the lifeboats did not respond, passengers said. The travelers had not undergone a fire drill. The ship had no sprinkler system. Interior fire doors failed to stay the blaze.
Even at that, the Prinsendam apparently is immune from investigation by Coast Guard, since the fire occurred in international waters.
Most survivors agreed that there had been no panic during the rescue operation or the terrible time at sea, in the open boats. Coast Guard Lt. Bruce Melnick, who pulled 109 survivors from lifeboats into his helicopter, said, "It was a miracle everybody was all right."
One elderly woman suffering from exposure was taken off a Coast Guard cutter in Sitka on a stretcher, and a diabetic was hospitalized for insulin treatment.
Helicopter crews, the Coast Guard said, picked up 359 people from boats and rafts and landed them on the Williamsburg, a 1,100-foot tanker that had been bound from Valdez to Texas with Alaska crude oil. The tanker returned to Valdez Sunday night to unload its unanticipated passengers.
About 147 passengers and crew members had been taken to Sitka earlier by choppers and a Coast Guard cutter, one of several dispatched to the scene. b
"I was beginning to have my doubts whether we would all make it," said John Gyorkos, a Huntington Beach, Calif., attorney. He said that crew members in his lifeboat "actually pushed aside old ladies to get on the [sling] that was coming down from the helicopter."
Holland American officials said in New York yesterday that the Prinsendam, still burning at sea, will be taken by tugboat to a drydock inspection as soon as conditions permit.
Company officials praised the Coast Guard and the crew of the Williamsburg for their cool action in what was being called the greatest single-ship rescue in modern history.
After all the trauma, the heroism, the cold, the near-miss, it was up to Capt. Wabeke to add the final poetic touch.
When Coast Guard Capt. John Walters of Aurora, Colo., lowered his helicopter down over the burning Prinsendam, Wabeke was the last to abandon ship.
He clamored into the chopper wearing his dress blues with gold braid, a white scarf at his throat, as his ill-fated ship pitched and rolled in 20-foot seas,-flames licking in the wheelhouse window.
Walters dropped Wabeke onto the deck of the rescue oil tanker. The seaman turned, looked skyward and saluted with hands clasped high above his head, in the gladiator's gesture of triumph.