Remembering One Of The Largest High-Seas Rescues In Maritime History

May 20, 2017

It was going to be an adventure.

Even before they came aboard the Holland America cruise ship Prinsendam, John Graham and his 13-year-old daughter, Malory, knew that much.

It was October, 1980. The cruise would take them from the United States to Japan, with stops in Alaska for glaciers and wildlife, fancy dinners at sea, entertainment on board, and the Pacific Ocean just outside.

As it turned out, there would also be a fire, an order to abandon ship, a typhoon, and a massive high-seas rescue involving two countries.

Yes, it was going to be an adventure. Just not the one they thought they were getting.

John Graham and his daughter Malory Graham tour the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell during a reunion of survivors from the M/S Prinsendam, a cruise ship that sank in the Gulf of Alaska in 1980. This Coast Guard vessel rescued John Graham 36 years ago. His daughter was hoisted out of the lifeboat by a helicopter and taken elsewhere.
Credit Rich McClear / KCAW

Coming Aboard

John Graham spent more than 15 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. He had been in conflict zones in Asia, working with people at the centers of nascent democracies and popular uprisings.

The work was dangerous. He recounts close calls with gunfire and narrow escapes before arrests by authoritarian regimes. So when Holland America offered him a lecturing gig on the MS Prinsendam, he took it.

“And it turned out after the first night part of my job also was to waltz blue-haired widows around the dance floor,” Graham said. “But I didn’t know that then.”

After a cruise up Alaska’s southeast coast, the ship made for open sea in the Gulf of Alaska. Malory Graham was in bed after a long, busy, fun day on the ship. And that’s when she woke up to a warning. The captain came on the ship’s loudspeakers to announce there had been a fire in the engine room. But he said it was only an advisory – that everything was under control and that the crew just wanted passengers to know, in case they saw smoke venting from the compartment.

Malory thought little of it and went back to sleep.

“And then a little later on my dad woke me up,” she said. “There was another announcement.”

The crew had not been able to clear out the smoke, so they were offering special entertainment and food on the lido deck.

The Grahams got dressed and went topside.

The ship’s entertainers were performing selections from a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue. People were milling about.

But beneath them, the fire in the engine room had flared back up – and was growing more intense.

‘Let’s Get Off This Boat’

Soon, the fire was no longer out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

“I could see flames on the other side of the ship,” Malory Graham said. “Let’s get off this boat as fast as possible.”

The order came to abandon ship, and so in the middle of the night the more than 500 passengers and crew of the Prinsendam piled into lifeboats and went into the ink-black and icy cold waters of the Gulf of Alaska.

An SOS was sent out. The Coast Guard cutters Mellon, Boutwell and Woodrush steamed in their direction. The civilian vessels Sohio Intrepid and Williamsburg also headed toward their position. Coast Guard helicopters, as well as aircraft from the U.S. and Canadian Air Forces, launched and went toward the Prinsendam’s last position.

John and Malory Graham climbed into Lifeboat No. 2. Each was built for 47 people, and each held nearly double. At least they were warm, John Graham said.

The boats drifted away from the ship, and from one another as the overnight hours turned into daylight, and mid-morning.

“I remember once shortly before noon a crewman who should have known better got up in the middle of that lifeboat and shouted at the top of his lungs, in broken English, that we we’re all going to die,” John Graham said.

A woman from New Jersey – someone Graham had waltzed around the dance floor the night before – stood up and hit the crewman in the face.

“She said, ‘How dare you! Sit down and shut up,’” John Graham said. “And he did. And that averted a moment of panic.”

Rescued By A Jedi

In Lifeboat No. 2, the passengers decided to send women and children to be hoisted away by Coast Guard helicopters. The metal basket would come down, one person would get in, and up they would go, over and over.

For Malory Graham, it was an adventure. “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” had just come out in theaters that summer. As she was hoisted out of the lifeboat, 13-year-old Malory looked up at the 18-year-old Coast Guardsman performing the hoist.

“The man who was hauling the basket was wearing a white helmet and an orange jumpsuit,” she said. “I was sure I was being rescued by Luke Skywalker. The idea that I was going to die – that I could have died – just didn’t even cross my mind.”

Things were about to get a little more turbulent for John Graham, watching his daughter ascend to the helicopter above him. He still had hours of waiting to do. And time was running out.

The remnants of Typhoon Vernon were approaching. Winds picked up. Seas and stomachs began to churn. Only a handful of people – including John Graham – remained in the lifeboat.

“The last eight people there, we were ready to die,” he said. “We knew the odds were that we were going to die. These were a good seven people to die with.”

As the aircraft retreated in increasingly dangerous conditions, the Coast Guard cutter Boutwell came crashing through the waves.

The people in the lifeboat were in no shape to climb the ladder on the side of the ship, so crewmen lowered something called a horse collar – an enormous rescue strap on the end of a pole. One by one, the people aboard positioned the collar underneath their arms and around their backs.

“And then, these guys on deck would all heave as hard as they could, and we’d go flying off through the air,” John Graham said. “They’d point us toward landing on the deck, like we were a piece of tuna or something.”

It wasn’t pretty, but they were aboard. They were bruised; they were cold; but they were alive.

The Aftermath

Every single person – the more than 500 aboard the Prinsendam and all the responders – survived the rescue. It went down in history as one of the most successful high seas rescues in the entire history of the United States Coast Guard. And that’s no small feat.

“There were like 150 moving parts on this,” John Graham said. “They made it all work together. To pull 530 people off in the middle of a typhoon in the Gulf of Alaska in October and not lose a life was a miracle. It was all due to their professionalism.”

John Graham still has The Seattle Times newspaper clipping showing the reunion with his 13-year-old daughter, Malory, after they abandoned ship in the Gulf of Alaska in 1980.
Credit Courtesy of John Graham

There were close calls. One helicopter had an electrical fire on board and barely made it back to shore. Another had to set down on a nearby ship after almost running out of fuel. An entire lifeboat was almost lost until someone radioed that there were two parajumpers still unaccounted for.

The survivors were taken to various nearby Alaskan towns. Residents came out with blankets and food. Stores opened to provide clothing and supplies (paid for by Holland America), and local doctors issued prescriptions for medications left behind on the ship.

John Graham went to Sitka, about 180 miles southeast of the scene. Malory Graham was sent to Valdez, 300 miles north, before flying to Anchorage and then Seattle, where she was reunited with her father. A photo from the Seattle Times shows Malory at SeaTac Airport, safely in her father’s arms.

They call each other every year on the anniversary of their rescue. John Graham sees the Prinsendam rescue story not as a one-time event, but as a long epic that only began the day of the rescue.

Many of the passengers from the Prinsendam were in their 60s and 70s at the time of their rescue. Many of the responders were a third that age – in their late teens and early 20s. Reunions of the survivors consist more of the rescuers than the rescued these days.

On stage at the reunion, John Graham said the events that unfolded Oct. 4, 1980 were the beginning of a story, not the end. And he thanked the rescuers in attendance for their work that day – and for the lives and careers he and his daughter have led in the 35 years since. They wouldn’t have been possible, he said, if he and his daughter had ended up at the bottom of the North Pacific.

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This story originally aired on Nov. 3, 2015

Corrected on December 12, 2016 - An earlier version of this story misidentified two missing parajumpers. They were Americans, not Canadians.

A footnote, too: Rich McClear shot one of the photos we're using for this story and tipped us off to the reunion this year in Seattle. But he also covered the story for KTOO radio in Juneau when it happened in 1980. He talks about that experience as part of a series of reports he did for NPR member station KCAW in Sitka, Alaska.