My Turn: The rest of the Empress story

Passengers, crew of the ferry Columbia assisted in rescue operation

Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Juneau Empire published a very interesting story on May 15 about the rescue of passengers and crew from the cruise ship Empress of the North.

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Credit was given and credit was certainly due to the Coast Guard for its heroic efforts in getting everyone off the damaged ship and onto the barge and Coast Guard boats that carried the passengers to the rescue ship.

But it seems the story ended there and left out the Alaska ferry Columbia, which took on these unfortunate people and provided the first medical and physical help they had in hours. Because the Alaska Marine Highway System's fleet is so familiar with the waters, and has several ships constantly at sea, it's often called upon in emergencies.

Marine highway employees constantly train for such events, and they were right there when needed. The call went out about 4 a.m. over the loudspeaker for the passengers of the Columbia to be understanding regarding the emergency. They were first asked to give up their rooms to provide a place for the Empress of the North's passengers, and then a plea went out for anyone with medical training to volunteer to set up first-aid facilities.

The smoothness of the operation on board the Columbia was directly due to the efficiency and organization of Chief Purser Travis Carlile. His calm skills in delegating duties to other crew members and volunteers - and his continued monitoring of their work - assured the success of the rescue mission. Junior Purser Dell Casissid was with the Columbia crew on the car deck assisting the loading of the survivors, while Lee Harris, the retired chief purser of the Columbia who lives in Juneau, was assigning rooms and organizing volunteers to provide comfort measures and whatever other duties were needed.

As changes in receiving survivors occurred, Carlile adapted and re-organized procedures by putting a volunteer nurse on the car deck to evaluate the medical condition of each survivor being boarded. The triage effort of Judy King, a registered nurse and passenger volunteer from Arlington, Texas, was the first medical person to see the survivors as they came aboard. She divided them into two categories - those needing immediate medical attention and those who did not. Those who did not need medical attention were sent up to the lounges and the dining room, where they were served a hot breakfast.

Those who needed medical attention were handed off on the car deck to another volunteer who got them to the elevator, which was operated by a Columbia crew member, and eventually to the first aid station.

The first aid station was operated by a nurse named Tracy. I'm not sure of her last name, but she is a resident of Juneau and wife of a crew member of the Kennicott. She had a number of nurses working for her. But this is where the action was. She did immediate evaluations and got the patients into rooms ready to be seen by Dr. Stew, a retired military man and volunteer who got off in Juneau. Nurse Tracy did the organizing, supervising and paperwork at the first-aid station.

There were many volunteers - both passengers and company employees returning from vacations, etc. - such as Darren, who wrote down the names of those who were rescued; Anna, a nurse who helped on the car deck; Mary Gauthier, assistant steward on the Kennicott who helped make beds and did anything she could to help out on the logistics side; and Sgt. David Ragsdale and his wife, Rhaegyn, passengers on their way to a new duty station at Fort Wainwright. David helped get passengers aboard, while Rhaegyn helped in the first aid station, tending the elderly and making them comfortable. After all were aboard, David continued to assist as needed.

• Roy W. King is a resident of Arlington, Texas.

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