Monday, September 12, 2011

Monday Morning Mariner: My 9/11 Story

On September 11, 2001, I was captain of the small cruise ship Spirit of Alaska cruising through southeast Alaska. Normally, I was the chief mate aboard this ship, but the captain was on a scheduled time off, visiting his brother in Manhattan. This was our last Alaska cruise of the season; we were on Day 5 of a meandering 10 day passage from Juneau to Seattle, which included stops in Glacier Bay and, just the day before, Sitka. The 11th was a "captain's choice" day, a day to look for wildlife and maybe get a last glimpse of a glacier.

Very early on the morning watch, the Chief Mate called me to say he was hearing some unusual chatter on the VHF radio. The local commercial fishermen were chatting about reports that airliners had been flown into the Capitol Building in Washington DC, the Pentagon, and other landmarks. We weren't sure what to make of this; I instructed the Chief Mate and the deckhands on watch to keep this to themselves until we had some hard information. We then headed into Red Bluff Bay, an inlet on the east coast of Baranof Island, to look for bears and check out a spectacular waterfall before breakfast.

Breakfast was served and we slowly made our way out of Red Bluff Bay. A few hundred yards outside the entrance the cell phone lit up, telling me we'd missed nine messages. It was a little after 8:00 A.M. Alaska time. It was at that moment I knew that the fishermen's chatter had a nugget of truth in it.

I called the company Port Captain in Seattle. The company and the country were in chaos. The two attacks on the World Trade Center and the one on the Pentagon were known at that point, but there were rumors of other planes unaccounted for, including one out of Anchorage. The death toll was thought to be as high as 15,000 people. All aircraft were grounded and the borders were closed. All the company's ships were put on a higher security footing. And it was up to me to tell the passengers and crew.

I called a general meeting in the dining room, which was in the last stages of breakfast service. The deckhands woke the off-watch crew: I only wanted to have to say this once. Before I started to speak, one woman ran out of the dining room toward her cabin, she just couldn't wait. I remember thinking she was going to remember that trip to the bathroom for the rest of her life.

Then I told them.

Many were in disbelief. Three asked me if I was joking. "Is this like the pink flamingos?" one man asked, referring to the "wildlife sighting" the day before of pink plastic lawn flamingos that someone had put in a tree outside of Sitka. I assured him it wasn't.

I then moved on to the new security arrangements, told them the vessel's satellite phone would be available if anyone needed to use it, and that the trip would continue as planned, at least for now.

Many ran right up to the sun deck and turned on their cell phones. Crew members were in tears. I was hammered with a hundred questions, none of which I knew the answer to. Then the lookout spotted whales.

Soon we were drifting in the tide rips off Yasha Island, with twenty-some humpback whales all around us. The passengers lined the rails, cameras clicking and video cameras whirring, but there was only one topic of conversation. The same phrases kept coming up: "Pearl Harbor" and "this changes everything." At lunch I had a deputation from some of the passengers: why wasn't the vessel's flag at half mast? I told them that a country at war doesn't lower its flag, but the truth is I just hadn't thought of it. The next morning the Spirit of Alaska's ensign was a half mast.

That night we anchored in Thomas Bay near Petersburg. One of the passengers had asked me to lead a prayer at dinner, but I declined. I listened to the radio station out of Petersburg while on anchor watch, but could only get a broadcast of the local school board meeting. Life went on. Late that night I got a call to come to the lounge. A passenger -- at 30-ish one of the younger ones -- was inconsolable, drunkenly weeping. I talked him into bed, thinking how much better the older folks were handling this.

The next morning at breakfast the assistant chef said "I can't wait to see a newspaper!" But all newspapers come into southeast Alaska by plane, and all the planes were still grounded.

When we docked at Petersburg, I got another surprise: me, the second mate, and the hotel manager had all been selected by the computer for random drug testing. It was in the clinic's waiting room that I first saw images of the attacks. I watched for a few minutes, then my turn came. I left my government-mandated urine sample with the technician and returned to the ship.

The head of our local office in Petersburg has recorded on videotape some of the network coverage of the attacks, which we played on the lounge TV for awhile. By mid-afternoon, one of the passengers asked, "Can we turn this off?" There were no objections.

The next day we called at Ketchikan, and it was a mess. People who were supposed to have flown out by then were roaming the docks looking for a berth on a southbound cruise ship. "Where are you going?" one guy asked me.

"Seattle," I said. "Assuming we can get across the border." I told him I had no extra room, however. There were several large cruise ships in port, and those "will get at least as far as Vancouver," I told him.
At least he was in civilization. Hunting and fishing parties all over Alaska were stranded because the planes they relied on to get them in and out were grounded.

When we left Ketchikan I had no idea if I would be able to cross back into US waters or not. Forty-eight hours later we did cross back into US waters and eventually docked in downtown Seattle. It wasn't over for me, however. The regular captain was stilled trapped in Manhattan, so I was not to be relieved as scheduled. We had received a photo of the captain and his brother with one of the World Trade Center towers burning in the background. It was chilling: the other tower hadn't been struck yet at the time the picture was taken.

At Seattle's Pier 69, I told the engineer to keep the engines running. As soon as the passengers and their luggage were off the boat, I wanted to leave for the dock where we'd prepare for our positioning trip to Portland. It occurred to me these passengers were disembarking into another world, different from the one they lived in when they'd boarded the Spirit of Alaska in Juneau ten days before. It had been a tough few days for me, the toughest of my career, but for the first time in a long time, I didn't envy the people going ashore.

Following the September 11 attacks, more than 300,000 people were evacuated from lower Manhattan by US merchant mariners. To honor the efforts of these mariners, the Maritime administration released this video for the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Very well written. I sailed as relief master on the Spirit of Alaska in 1995. I enjoyed it tremendously. Cheers, David