Homegrown heroBY AMY CODISPOTI | JOURNAL REPORTER Ken Grieser of Lake Stevens has been working for the Alaska Ferries for nearly seven and a half years. His job requires that he work on the Alaskan ferry, The Spirit of Columbia, for two straight weeks before returning home for the following two weeks.
A job like this inevitably comes with a fair share of wild stories and excitement, but never has Grieser experienced what he was a part of earlier this month.
Early in the morning of May 14, an Alaskan cruise ship, The Empress of the North, ran aground startling the 281 sleepy people onboard with a massive jolt.
Chief Mate Grieser was a journey away, aboard his own ship, the Columbia, when he heard the cruise’s initial calls for help.
“My ship was about five to six hours away when they first called for help,” Grieser said via email. “We could hear the Coast Guard and the Empress of the North on the radio. They said they were taking on water and that they were evacuating passengers.”
The Columbia’s captain, Phil Taylor, immediately ordered the ferry head toward the scene at full speed, just in case they were needed.
The cruise ship’s accident occurred a mere two days into the weeklong cruise when the passengers were rudely awoken at about 1:30 a.m. to a frightful thud. According to reports, many passengers thought the boat had struck an icecap.
It was no icecap. It was a charted reef.
While no one is quite sure how it happened, the 299 foot cruise ship somehow got wedged into rocks approximately 50 nautical miles (57 miles) from Juneau, near Icy Strait. Immediately after the crash, the ship began taking on water. The glacier-fed water was only 45-50 degrees and light winds were only adding to the chill factor, creating a greater sense of urgency to get the passengers to a safe place.
The Coast Guard sent in helicopters immediately and began to work with some of smaller vessels in the area to get the people off the ship.
As the Columbia crew kept listening to the radio, they realized they were the only vessel around big enough to take all the passengers onboard.
“We called the Coast Guard and said we’d be willing to help if needed,” Grieser said. “They said yes.”
The Columbia was still three hours away when the Coast Guard requested their help.
“We were busy the whole time, however,” said Grieser. “Our crew began to prepare for the rescue. We had 234 passengers onboard already. Many of them had medical training and one was a doctor.”
Grieser said that many of the people onboard were given an orientation about the ferry’s medical facilities and refreshed themselves on the proper treatment of hyperthermia victims.
“Volunteer passengers organized to pass out blankets, hot drinks and soups,” Grieser said. “Passengers even gave up their staterooms in case the Empress of the North people needed to sleep.”
When the Columbia arrived to the scene nearly six hours after the cruise ship ran aground, they were expecting the worst, anticipating people with injuries and hyperthermia from a long night outside.
“Instead, everyone was in great spirits and there were very few injuries,” he said. “I remember thinking how lucky this was. The sea in that area can be extremely rough and windy. On this morning, it was calm.”
The mild weather came in very useful when the Coast Guard Cutter tied up along side the Columbia and the crew from both ships rigged a wooden plank between the vessels for passengers to cross.
Another Coast Guard boat than began to shuttle people from other small rescue vessels to the ferry.
“It took about two hours to get all the people onboard,” Grieser said. “We gave them all blankets, food and some needed slight medical attention. Our crew and volunteer passengers did an amazing job. I’m proud of them.”
To this date, the reasons why the cruise ship ran aground are unknown and The National Transportation Safety board is investigating the accident.