Ferry system apologizes to family

Captain of Aurora still has no comment on stranding casket

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

Two months after the state ferry Aurora separated a grieving family from the body of a beloved matriarch, the Alaska Marine Highway System has issued a formal apology.

But the response is too little, too late, according to family members. They say the captain of the Aurora should be forced to address his actions in Sitka in the early morning of Oct. 12.

"I really don't believe the captain is the kind of person who'll apologize," said Darlene Johnson, daughter of Gertrude Demmert of Angoon, whose body was in a hearse at the Sitka dock when the captain refused to let it aboard. "I think it'll be really amazing if he does."

Johnson and other relatives were on the Aurora as it departed Sitka without Demmert, in what witnesses described as an ugly and heart-wrenching scene.

Capt. Athos Gambacorta, a San Diego resident, had been informed that Demmert's body was en route from an autopsy in Anchorage, according to ferry system General Manager George Capacci.

But Gambacorta wouldn't delay five minutes for the hearse when it arrived at the dock because he was under pressure to reach the treacherous Sergius Narrows and navigate it at the slack tidal current, Capacci said. Leaving Demmert's body behind threw off two days of scheduled memorial activities in Angoon. Meanwhile, the Aurora reached the narrows with 33 minutes to spare, according to the ship's logbook.

In his written apology to Johnson, which she said she received Wednesday, Capacci does not suggest that Gambacorta should have done anything differently.

"We do our best to accommodate specific requests from passengers, but when weather or tides narrow our windows of operation, our ability to accommodate special needs is sometimes greatly diminished, much to our dismay," Capacci wrote.

Johnson said she remains frustrated.

"I would like to do something but I'm not sure what I can do," she said. "I don't think an apology is enough."

Some employees of the Alaska Marine Highway System agreed that an apology was too long in coming.

Last Saturday, members of the LeConte crew apologized to the Demmert family, even though they were not involved in the incident.

"The M/V LeConte was out of service for annual shipyard maintenance at that time, and it is our hope that things might have turned out differently had we been on our 'hometown' run," says a letter to Harold Demmert Sr., the widower. "Mrs. Demmert had been a loyal supporter of the ferries ever since our ship was built in 1974, so this incident has been especially troubling for all of us working out here who care about the people and towns on our route."

Several ferry employees who contacted the Empire said, on the condition their names wouldn't be used, they were appalled by Capt. Gambacorta's judgment and also by the failure of the ferry system's central office to make amends immediately.

Gambacorta, who has refused to comment, told Capacci the hearse was not at the dock when the Aurora pulled off, Capacci told the Empire in a Nov. 28 interview. That was contradicted in subsequent interviews with the Sitka funeral director and family members on the Aurora.

Alberta Meyers, Demmert's sister, also said Capacci initially tried to deflect criticism toward Alaska Airlines. A weather-delayed flight from Anchorage set up the missed connection at the dock.

Capacci said he was just being factual about the airline's role in the incident.

"I think Alaska Airlines is too large and nebulous a corporation" to pressure for an apology, he said. "The captain of the airplane didn't come out and say, 'We're late; I'm sorry.' "

"Alaska Airlines did everything they could," said Chris Dearborn, the Sitka funeral director who tried to get the hearse on the Aurora. But he said he has heard from ferry system employees that Gambacorta is the only captain who would have refused to take it aboard.

"No captain can believe this happened," said a ferry employee. "This has been the talk of the fleet."

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

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