Ferry strands casket

Outraged family still waiting for apology for Oct. 12 incident

Posted: Friday, November 30, 2001

Gertrude Demmert's body was in a hearse at the Sitka ferry dock last month when the captain of the state vessel Aurora ordered crew members to depart without it.

The captain's decision continues to outrage members of Demmert's family in Angoon and Juneau, several of whom were on the Aurora as it pulled away.

And now a legislator is stepping up pressure on the Alaska Marine Highway System to apologize formally for what is perceived as the captain's poor judgment and lack of compassion.

"All of the marketing strategy in the world will never overcome the damage done to Alaska customer relations as the result of this single incident," Sen. Robin Taylor of Wrangell wrote to Transportation Commissioner Joseph Perkins on Nov. 19. Taylor's district includes Sitka. Rep. Albert Kookesh of Angoon also said the captain "made a serious error in judgment."

So far, the captain, Athos Gambacorta of San Diego, isn't commenting publicly.

Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Marine Highway System, said this morning he hadn't talked yet to Gambacorta about the incident. But Capacci said Gambacorta, "a very competent mariner," had safety-related reasons for getting the ship under way as soon as he did.

"Our safety record has been

beyond reproach and is indicative of the emphasis we put on safety," Capacci said.

Demmert, 62, of Angoon, died Oct. 8. An autopsy was performed in Anchorage, and the body was flown to Sitka on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 11. A memorial had been scheduled for Oct. 12 in Angoon, with a graveside service planned for the following day. Members of the family, including husband Harold Demmert, daughter Darlene Johnson of Angoon, and sister-in-law Sophie Frank of Juneau, were waiting on the Aurora for the casket.

But the plane was more than an hour late, due to weather. It finally arrived at 11:40 p.m., according to Chris Dearborn, funeral director for Prewitt Enterprises in Sitka. Dearborn said within five minutes the Alaska Airlines crew had the casket in his hearse and he set off for the ferry terminal, arriving while the ship was still tied up, about 12:05-12:07 a.m.

Dearborn said he had notified the terminal that the hearse was coming and was surprised when he wasn't allowed to drive on through the open car deck door.

"I heard somebody say, 'Close the doors; we're out of here,' " he said. "It was a bad scene."

"The crew members started to lower the ramp" as the hearse pulled up, Johnson said. "The captain from upstairs yelled down, 'No, we're not going to do this. Bring the ramp back up. We're leaving now.' I was really devastated and screaming, 'She's right there! She's right there!' "

Dearborn and Johnson said loading the hearse wouldn't have taken more than five minutes. Capacci acknowledged that's true and that Gambacorta was aware of the situation.

But even a few minutes might have seemed important to Gambacorta, Capacci said. To get to Angoon, the Aurora had to negotiate Sergius Narrows during slack tide or else face a delay of several hours.

On Oct. 12, the first slack tide was at 1:45 a.m. The acceptable window is 30 minutes on either side, in this case from 1:15 to 2:15 a.m. At about 14 knots, the Aurora generally would travel from Sitka to Sergius Narrows in 1 hour, 45 minutes, Capacci said.

The ship left Sitka at 12:12 a.m., which put estimated arrival at the narrows at 1:57 a.m., 18 minutes before it would be considered unsafe to proceed, Capacci said. As it turned out, the logbook shows the Aurora made it at 1:42 a.m., with 33 minutes to spare.

"I hate to second-guess a captain in operation," Capacci said. He noted that on Oct. 12 Gambacorta was in his ninth consecutive day on the Aurora, which is two more than usual, he said. It was late at night, in bad weather factors that could have led to impatience, Capacci said.

There are conflicting accounts of when the Aurora was supposed to leave Sitka. The departure time was not published. Dearborn and Johnson say the ship wasn't supposed to leave before midnight, anyway. Capacci contends the departure would have occurred at 11:15 p.m. if the crew hadn't waited for the hearse.

Demmert's body finally reached Angoon on Oct. 13. Several people missed the funeral due to the delay, and others had to fly back home, rather than take a ferry, Sophie Frank said.

"I really want to know what the captain was thinking and why he did what he did," Johnson said. "It was being really cruel, and I don't understand why."

According to family members, they have never spoken with Gambacorta, although some have talked with Capacci.

Johnson said she would submit a statement to Petersburg lawyer Fred Triem, who was representing Gertrude Demmert in a lawsuit against the Native village corporation in Angoon. Triem, who attended Demmert's funeral but wasn't in Sitka when the Aurora left, said he doesn't think a lawsuit is likely.

But Triem said the incident is typical. "What I detect among the employees of the Alaska Marine Highway is kind of an arrogance that the system is operated for the convenience of the employees. Arrogance, hubris, petulance."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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