SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Malaspina Once Rescued Passengers, 
Crewmembers From Burning Cruise Ship


December 19, 2019
Thursday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - The state ferry Malaspina, which was taken out of service after nearly 60 years earlier this month, was involved in one of the most dramatic rescues on the Canadian Pacific Coast more than 40 years ago.

The rescue involved the Norwegian cruise ship "Meteor" which was returning from a trip to Alaska in May of 1971, when a fire broke out in the crew quarters shortly before 3 am on May 22.

According to the H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, the Meteor - owned by the Bergen Lines - was the first Scandinavian cruise ship to enter the Alaska market. The 297-foot ship could accommodate 147 passengers, all in first class cabins. But on this particular tour, its second of the season, it only had 67 passengers.  It had a crew of 91.

jpg Malaspina Once Rescued Passengers, 
Crewmembers From Burning Cruise Ship

Norwegian death ship Meteor heading to drydock.
METEOR, near Vancouver, B.C.
32 crew members died in a fire on board - May 1971
Original photo from the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society ©
Photo courtesy Saltwater People Historical Society

The ship was passing Texada Island, some 60 miles north of Vancouver, when a fire broke out in the crew quarters in the bow of the ship. An investigation determined that a cigarette caught a mattress on fire which further ignited some freshly varnished woodwork and caused the fire to spread so quickly through the forecastle that more than a third of the crew was trapped and unable to escaped. The  death toll would be 32.

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The Meteor broadcast a mayday call on VHF Channel 6 rather than the international distress frequency, which was the one required by law to be monitored 24 hours a days by all vessel. Luckily for the Meteor, the Malaspina had left Seattle not long before and First Mate Walter Jackinsky heard the distress call.

"We headed right there - I got the Captain out and we headed full bore right for it," he wrote in his 2004 memoir "Any Tonnage, Any Ocean." "We were loaded full, out of Seattle, going to Ketchikan. We were the first one there. You could see the smoke coming out through the portholes,. Some of the guys were sticking their heads out, trying to get some air, I guess they couldn't get above deck. We got the lifeboats out and got as close as we could, and gosh, the passengers came in their nightgowns. They came aboard in nightgowns, and we had coffee and donuts for them. The stewards gave them their little white jackets. That's what they wore when they went ashore in Vancouver."

The Malaspina diverted to Vancouver with the 67 passengers and four injured crew members. Meanwhile two Canadian coast guard cutters and a salvage tug boat helped put out the fire and stabilize the ship which managed to get to Vancouver under its own power despite a 15-degree list. The bodies of the dead crew members were removed. During a later inquiry Captain Alf Morner recounted crawling into the forward section of the ship to help fight the fire and being shocked at the number of crewmembers who had died not from the fire but the smoke.

A story in the July 17, 1971 Seattle Post Intelligencer noted that Jackinsky and Malaspina Captain Harold Payne were both honored by the US Maritime Administration which noted that the safe rescue of the passengers and the surviving crew of the ship occurred under the "highest traditions of the United States Merchant Marine."
Payne and the entire crew were given a special commendation by Alaska Governor Bill Egan several months later.

Insurance companies declared the Meteor a total loss and it was slated to be scrapped. 

Instead it was purchased by the Greek Epirotiki Line and rebuilt, to hold slightly more than 200 passengers and given faster engines. It was renamed the Neptune and continued in service as a high-end boutique cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea until 1998.

The ship was scrapped in 2003.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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