Liner was last chance for rescue, captain says
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
After nearly 20 days adrift, the captain of the Indonesian tanker Insiko 1907 knew his chances of rescue were becoming more doubtful.
Capt. Chung Chin Po
"I always had hope. But some of the crew were ready to give up.
Captain of Insiko 1907
Capt. Chung Chin Po
All navigation and communications equipment was out of operation.
Capt. Chung Chin Po's vessel was crippled.
On the night of the fire, a fishing vessel passed within 10 miles of the Insiko, and the tanker fired a flare. But the ship did not stop.
That was the last time any vessel came within sight of the Insiko until shortly before 1 a.m. Tuesday, when Chung saw a bright light over the horizon. Chung told The Advertiser yesterday that he thought the light came from another fishing vessel, and he also knew that this might be the last chance for survival.
He fired one of the ship's few remaining flares.
"I wanted to see if the other boat was aware of my rescue signal," Chung said through interpreter Karl Kao. "If they did, they will come. If they do not come, then my hope to be rescued in my mind would be broken."
As the vessel approached the Insiko, Chung said, the lights became brighter. He then noticed many levels of lights and realized the vessel was a cruise liner headed straight at him.
The bright beacon of light turned out to be the Norwegian Star cruise ship that was on its way to Fanning Island. The Star did see Chung's flare and rescued the captain and his 10 crew members.
Chung said he was relieved that the ship wasn't another fishing vessel because these boats aren't in the business of rescuing others. He said they are on a strict mission and diverting from their plan would cost them valuable time and money.
Chung said the fire began at about 10 a.m. March 13. At first, he thought the smoke was coming from the ship's kitchen, but a worried cook told him the fire was in the engine room.
The ship's first mate made several attempts to enter the engine room, but the smoke was too thick. Chung also tried to get to the compartment but was turned back by the smoke.
A sudden flash scalded the first mate and singed the captain's eyebrows. A crew member in the engine room did not survive.
With no power, the crew was unable to use water pumps to fight the blaze. Chung ordered a life raft into the water, but the raft overturned.
Chung felt the crew's chances of surviving were better if they remained on the 256-foot tanker.
For nearly a day, the fire smoldered. Luckily, Chung said, the fire did not spread beyond the lower levels of the engine room and operations room on deck.
The Insiko was a refueling and supply ship for Taiwanese fishing vessels and had completed most of its work. Chung said the ship was about to return to Indonesia when the fire broke out.
Chung said the ship's freezer was at the front of the ship, so the food was not destroyed in the fire. Adequate food and water were never in question, and the shipmates kept warm at night by drinking liquor.
But as the days went on and the vessel was battered by large waves, Chung said his crew was growing impatient. They began to blame the captain for the fire, even though the cause may never be known.
"I always had hope," Chung said. "But some of the crew were ready to give up."
The captain tried to keep his crew's minds off their dire situation. He had them working in shifts so they would not miss a rescue opportunity, and he made them try their luck at fishing.
Chung kept a log and had an idea where the Insiko was drifting. He had the crew craft five sails in an attempt to guide the ship southwest to where he believed vessels that had been serviced by his crew might be.
The wind wouldn't cooperate, however, and the Insiko drifted in the opposite direction, an estimated 100 miles from the point where the fire began. But the wind turned out to be a gift, as it guided the Insiko into the path of the Norwegian Star.
Passengers aboard the cruise ship were beaming with pride yesterday, happy to have been along for the ride when crew members accomplished the high-seas rescue early Tuesday morning.
"I'm so proud of that captain,'' said Gloria Pace of Richmond, Va. "It brings tears to my eyes because of what he did.''
The ship landed at Lahaina yesterday.
The Insiko, with the dead sailor still aboard, was drifting due west in international waters at about half a knot.
The cruise ship had been steaming toward Fanning Island, about 1,200 miles from Hawai'i, when crew members spotted a red parachute signal rocket and small fire in the darkness 15 miles away.
It was then that Capt. Niklas Peterstam made the decision to abort the trip to Fanning, rescue the stranded seaman and take them to Hawai'i.
All of this happened between 12:50 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., and most of the 2,585 cruise ship passengers slept through the rescue.
Peterstam, speaking to reporters in Lahaina yesterday, said that as he drew closer to the disabled tanker, he put the ship's 15-member security force on alert as a safety precaution for his own passengers.
"I called the security officer and told him to be prepared for anything," he said. "With what's happening these days, you never know what's going on."
But there were no problems. And despite their ordeal, the surviving crew was in relatively good shape. The injured first mate was in satisfactory condition yesterday at Straub Clinic and Hospital.
The Paces watched a helicopter take the burned crewman from the ship Tuesday morning, and they joined other passengers at the railing as they saw the other rescued crewmen being shuttled to a Coast Guard vessel.
When the shuttle returned, the passengers broke out into cheers as it circled the ship.
Doug Pace said the moment sent chills down his spine.
"It was like the end of a war,'' he said. "It was very exciting.''
Lynn Vanwagnen of Clarklake, Mich., said about 1,000 people broke into applause when the rescue was recounted at an on-board show Tuesday evening.
"It was terrific,'' Vanwagnen recalled.
The crew was staying at a Waikiki hotel last night and did not know when they would head for home.