Rescue Swimmers, In-Flight Refueling Grew from Prisendam Rescue

Both resulted from lessons learned in one of the greatest sea rescues on record: the Oct. 4-5, 1980, rescue of all 524 passengers and crew members from a cruise ship in the Gulf of Alaska.

Looking back to an emergency incident 31 years ago this week in the Gulf of Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard has offered a reminder of the safety gains that resulted from it. Three Coast Guard cutters, Coast Guard rescue helicopters and aircraft, a 1,000-foot supertanker, and aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and the Canadian navy participated in the successful rescue of 524 passengers and crew members from the cruise ship Prisendam. A fire that broke out in its engine room around midnight Oct. 4 quickly went out of control, and her captain gave the order to abandon ship around 6:30 a.m. local time.

A Coast Guard helicopter was on scene as passengers and crew were lowered in lifeboats, but the supertanker Williamsburgh did not arrive for hours. In all, it took 12 hours to get everyone out of the lifeboats and onto the Williamsburgh and the cutter Boutwell, which took 80 survivors to Sitka, Alaska. Only after it arrived did authorities realize one more lifeboat was missing, so the Boutwell was dispatched, finally found it about 1 a.m. Oct. 5, and rescued everyone aboard.

Some hypothermic passengers were flown to shore by rescue helicopters, which would then refuel and return to the scene, according to an account written by Christopher Lagan and Ademide Adedokun and posted on the Coast Guard's Compass blog. Their report says the rescue was significant because of the distance rescuers had to travel, and the incident resulted in two changes that have since saved thousands of lives: The Coast Guard created its rescue swimmer program and also developed helicopter in-flight refueling capability that is now standard on its rescue helicopters.

Coast Guard personnel had tried to install a pump on the Prisendam to fight the fire, but that effort failed. The ship listed severely and ultimately sank on Oct. 11.

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