ROTTERDAM / ALASKA - The cruise ship of the Holland-America Line Prinsendam is on fire in the Gulf of Alaska. All crew members have been rescued. Among the passengers are two Dutch people.

The fire broke out during the night and was preceded by a series of explosions in the engine room. Soon smoke cleared the corridors of the luxurious cruise ship. De 320 passengers, especially older Americans who have a ticket from between $ 3000 en $ 6000 dollars, were quickly awakened.

There was no panic, say Chris and Mies Karelse from Reeuwijk, the only Dutch passengers. "We were not asleep yet", Chris Karelse tells in Het Vrije Volk. “Then we smelled that burning smell. Fire in the engine room was said. We thought it was a small thing, but the smoke entered the huts, that was scary. ”

The crew of the ship initially tried to extinguish the fire themselves. The US Coast Guard received an SOS message around 2:30 PM, followed some time later by the message that "the fire seemed under control".

According to Karelse everyone was standing, without stuff, on deck. “You didn't know what was going on at the beginning. Gradually you started to wonder if the fire was out. But the clouds of smoke got thicker and you could see crew members at the sloops. ”

* Prinsendam with the HH-3F Pelican helicopter. Foto: Public Domain

Off board

An hour and a half later, the fire had spread into the dining room. At that moment Captain Wabeke decided that all passengers and crew members had to leave the ship. Only a fire crew would stay on board.

“Even the bar exploded, because of all that alcohol. Then we got into the sloops. Bang, yet quite calm. That was very strange. ”

(Chris Karelse, Het Vrije Volk, 07-10-1980)

Karelse and his wife had seen the opportunity to wear thick clothes, but there were passengers who boarded the lifeboat in their nightgowns or alone with a blanket.

The evacuation went very well. It was a quiet night and the lifeboats were well in the water. It was cold though, with temperatures around freezing, but given the time of year that was not surprising.

According to Karelse it was an "insane sight".

“All those boats around that burning, brightly lit ship. Some were crying ”

(Chris Karelse, Het Vrije Volk, 07-10-1980)

Some of the elderly on board the ship did not have a good word for the evacuation. Some crew members are said to have pushed elderly people aside to secure a place on board the lifeboats. Other lifeboats did not have any crew on board at all. The lifeboats would also be far too full.

* One of the overcrowded lifeboats of the Prinsendam. Foto: United States Coast Guard report, November 1980


One of the lifeboats was equipped with a motor and was to pull the other boats. That's where it went wrong. The cables broke. Then the crew had to row. The boats had to leave the ship as quickly as possible, because there was a danger that an explosion would occur if the fire reached the oil tanks.

The rescue came in the fact that the tanker Williamsburg had picked up the SOS signal from the Prinsendam. The ship had given full throttle a hundred nautical miles away and arrived at the burning Prinsendam in the course of the morning.

“At dawn we had already seen him in the distance. What a relief! Tears ran down people's cheeks. The situation in the boats was terrible! More than three quarters of the people were above 65 jaar. They were very ill "

(Chris Karelse, Het Vrije Volk, 07-10-1980)
The Dutch couple Karelse tells. Foto: Fernando Pereira, National Archives / Anefo

Getting the people out of the water was quite a job. The calm weather of the night had given way to force six. The waves were six to eight meters high, estimates Karelse.

The Williamsburg crew was throwing lines down, with which the furrow- and the eight of our boat were tied up. Each time we were hit against the tanker wall. God, how dangerous that was. ”

(Chris Karelse, Het Vrije Volk, 07-10-1980)

Rope ladders were then lowered and then the people in the boat were allowed to climb up. First the older women were allowed, then the rest followed.

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Going on

The Williamsburg has been busy all morning and part of the afternoon to get all passengers out of the water.  

“We have now 250 survivors on board, but there are still some 200 in the water. It is still two to three hours before we have picked it up ”

(Marconist Jim Pfister, Het Vrije Volk, 07-10-1980 )

According to the tanker's wireless operator, flames are still visible on board the cruise ship. The ship is listing.

The problems got much worse when one of the pumps broke down, which had been delivered by the Coast Guard. The fire flared up and the firefighting team has now also disembarked.

The American destroyer Boutwell has also arrived.

Most people on board will be taken to Valdez by the Williamsburg. Another part has already been dropped off in Sitka by helicopter.

The Prinsendam in better times, after launch 1972. Foto: Ary Groeneveld, Municipal Archives Rotterdam


The Prinsendam was built eight years ago in Hardinxveld-Giessendam. Construction took about some 50 miljoen gulden. A fire already broke out once during the completion at Wilton-Fijenoord.

The ship sails under the Antillean flag and has 190 crew members on board. Sit there 23 Dutch officers. Most of the crew members are of Indonesian nationality.

The ship was en route from the United States to Singapore.

Hoe ging het verder?

Eleven of those on board were taken to hospital with injuries. Many of the elderly on board had symptoms of hypothermia.

Still, the coast guard spoke of one ‘micracle rescue’, because, despite the dire circumstances, no one has died.

It was due to the fact that the ship was so close to the coast and the fact that the Williamsburg was so quickly on the spot, that no one had died.

The ship was smoldering for days. Captain Wabeke, who was the last to leave the ship in style, went back on board a few days later, to inspect whether the ship could still be rescued. That was still not possible due to the smoke development. It was then decided to tow the ship to a safe harbor.

A model of the Prinsendam, used in the investigation by the Shipping Inspectorate into the disaster. Foto: Hans van Dijk. National Archives / Anefo

In the end it did not come to that. After seven (!) days some portholes gave way from the heat of the days before. The ship capsized, water penetrated the rest of the ship and in three minutes the ship had completely disappeared below the surface of the water.

The ship sank to a depth of three kilometers. Ten minutes after the sinking of the ship, only a few pieces of wood and one lifeboat were visible at the spot where the Prinsendam ended.

Salvage from the ship would make no sense, experts from recovery company Smit Tak said, because little remains of the ship at such a depth, due to the enormous water pressure.

What had gone wrong?

Because the ship was wrecked in international waters, the Dutch shipping inspectorate carried out the investigation itself. There was a chain of errors.

For example, the fire-resistant partitions did not close, so that the fire could spread over much of the ship.

The fire was caused by a burst oil pipe from one of the engines. As a result, oil ended up on a hot exhaust gas line. There should have been protective cushions around it, but there were none. This created a fire.

The fire was extinguished several times, but the crew had no idea, what caused the fire. This kept oil on the red-hot pipe, which then caught fire again.

One of the Dutch crew members fled after the first fire broke out. A second crew member, that got hot oil all over his face and leg, immediately picked up a fire extinguisher. A third raised the alarm. None of the three men thought of shutting off the oil supply.

Members of the Shipping Council; from left to right mr W.J.M. Berger, W. Meijer, mr E.J. Rosen Jacobson (chairman). Foto: Hans van Dijk. National Archives / Anefo

Captain Wabeke wanted to inject carbon dioxide into the engine room, but was not sure if everyone had left that room. Subsequently, the extinguishing method was postponed. When they wanted to use this method half an hour later, it had become so hot, that it was no longer possible. In the meantime, the fire had also spread to the dining hall.

When they wanted to extinguish that fire, it turned out that no water was coming from the extinguishing water taps. They were connected to the engine room. The machines had failed there.

Five officers were sentenced for their mistakes in the disaster. Their certificates were taken for one week. Captain Wabeke was acquitted.

According to the Inspectorate for Shipping, there was no question of management and mutual consultation. There was acted, but because everyone "did their own thing," it had no effect.

The captain would have had too little support from his officers, the inspectorate ruled. Based on the information available to him, he had done the right thing.

Remarkably enough, the Holland America Line also made money with the disaster. The ship turned out to be in front 40 million dollars to be insured. In the books, the ship was already largely written off. As a result, financially, it entered the Holland America Line 1980 had a peak year.

The name Prinsendam was in 1988 put back into service by the Holland-America Line.


Het Vrije Volk – 06-10-1980 – Captain wants to return to "fire ship’

Het Vrije Volk – 06-10-1980 – Stikdonker

De Volkskrant – 10-10-1980 – Damage claims are denied in advance

Het Vrije Volk – 13-10-1980 – Prinsendam sinks to 3 km depth

The Telegraph – 26-03-1981 – HAL profit explosion due to loss of Prinsendam

TVNZ – 17-11-1981 – Many things went wrong in the fatal fire on Prinsendam

Leeuwarder Courant – 21-11-1981 – Shipping inspector demands punishment for five officers "Prinsendam’

Commandant’s Bulletin – November 1980 – The Miracle Rescue

Author: Dave Datema

published: 03-10-2020

story number: 152

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