My wife of three weeks and I were on our honeymoon. Our cruise ship, a small, intimate liner run by Coster Cruise Lines headed into a gorgeous fiord, a place called Glacier Bay. We loved the beauty all around. Alaska needed no intro for me, but I’d never been to this long, deep, glacier created watercourse before.
We both looked at a waterspout churning in the distance the Captain had just announced over the PA system. People ran from all parts of the vessel and crowded the rail to see the unusual sight. The dark sky above looked ominous in this land where time doesn’t seem to operate like it does at home.
The whirlwind spun rapidly, the tail touching the water gently, like a lover’s kiss. The ocean responded to its gossamer touch by lifting a veil of mist from the water to meet it. How beautiful, I thought.
But what’s beautiful can turn deadly.
My wife noticed it first. “The whirlwind…” she started. Her voice ended in a high squeak and her eyes grew big. Then she got it out. “Mark, it’s turning. It’s coming this way!”
All of a sudden us spectators became participants.
“All passengers will vacate the decks immediately,” the captain announced. He didn’t sound sure of himself, not like he did when he announced this attraction moments before. A thrill went through me. The ship had no place to run. What if the whirlwind passed over us? Anybody on deck might get sucked up into the cloud.
“This-a is emergency! Everyone-a inside, a-please. Do not-a wait!” The captain’s English degraded into a kind of pidgin. At another time I could have laughed, but at the moment I didn’t see the humor.
“C’mon Hilly,” I urged. I grabbed her arm and pulled, but she and the rail wouldn’t part. Her hands clenched it tightly and I watched them turn white in the grip of fear.
“C’mon, Hilly! We’ve got to go!” I yelled into her ear, as the roar got louder. Hildegard Rampali Smith turned to me but she didn’t seem to know me. Her mouth had a faint smile and I don’t think I saw what she saw. In an instant she’d bridged a gap and flown somewhere, somewhere far away.
Everybody else seemed to have more presence of mind, because they scattered and disappeared to safety. Suddenly we were the only ones on deck.
I reached over and pried Hilly’s fingers from the rail. With her in tow I lunged toward the center of the vessel. Secondary winds began to buffet us. I reached out for a stanchion, anything I could hold onto. Way too late to reach a door, it wouldn’t matter, because I saw the horrified face of a sailor glance out the door’s porthole window as he locked the one nearest us. It would be suicide to reopen it. The face disappeared. I had a flash of compassion for the man.
We’d ride it out on deck. I couldn’t believe it had come on us so quickly. I towed Hilly toward a metal post that ran floor to ceiling. The top attached to some sort of metal screening, something to do with the runners and walkers track adjacent to the rail.
I wrapped my free hand around it. Then I pulled Hilly to me and wrapped both arms around her and the post and locked my fingers together in a death grip. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. We were out of time!
I’d heard a tornado sounds like a freight train going past your ear. This one seemed like that, but muted. Rather than fear, my brain did an odd thing. It analyzed the oncoming juggernaut. I had time to consider that the subdued nature of the sound had something to do with the amount of water it had picked up. Hilly had her eyes closed now but I’d opened mine again. In my position on the pole I could see the whirlwind less than fifty feet away. No way could it turn now. My last glance told me the swirling dervish must hit the ship.
Suddenly, lashing rain, horrifying wind, suffocating updraft! I focused all my attention to my interlaced fingers and hoped my arms would hold together long enough. With a ripping sound and a crash, the perforated metal roof over our heads tore away and disappeared.
“Hilly,” I cried, “I can’t hold on. I’m slipping!”
My fingers were soaked and the driving rain began to loosen my grip. The storm raged above us, pulling, tugging, trying to unlock my fingers and wrest my wife from my grasp. I felt the woman I loved being yanked fitfully upwards. I became aware that my feet had also left the deck. We were sliding up the pole into the waiting maelstrom.
The suction took my breath away. I couldn’t tell about my wife’s condition. The whirlwind jerked her, this way and that like a marionette.
As suddenly as it had begun, the noise faded away. The terrible wind stopped. We sank hard to the floor.
It’s over, I thought.
No, not over. Whatever dynamics caused the funnel cloud; whatever force formed the awesome thing above us; whatever life it briefly held left it. A column of water two thousand feet high began to drop onto the battered ship. A waterfall five times higher than Victoria Falls cascaded down on top of us. I turned painfully onto my knees, head down. I tried to get air. I couldn’t see. The water crushed at me.
Hilly! I felt for the pole, grabbed it and then felt for my wife. The thunder of the water made it hard to think. I began to fear she would be washed over the side or painfully tumbled into something. I’d given up my grip to try and get air. Hilly…gone! I stuck out a leg and searched as water tumbled from the sky. My leg hit something soggy, not metal. I moved my body slowly toward the lump but as water still flowed under me and pelted me from the top, I didn’t dare let go of my hold. I put my foot on the thing I thought must be Hilly.
A river fell from the sky. Despite our precarious position I couldn’t help but marvel at the forces of nature. I decided that if we got out of this alive, I would watch those forces of nature only on TV for the rest of my life.
The water poured for three minutes and ended as abruptly as it had started. Rivers of water on the decks sluiced away quickly.
Finally I could get up and I moved over the still form of my wife.
She didn’t move. I turned her over onto her back. No sign of life. The whirlwind had drowned her.
“Help! Help!” I cried. The nearest door opened. Two sailors dashed out and came over. One carefully disengaged me from my position over Hilly and the other began CPR. They’d worked on her for almost ten minutes when I heard a little cough and then a retching noise that sounded so good to my ears that I almost jumped up and down.
“Hilly, you’re alive!”
Slowly she came back.
When the ship’s doctor had seen her and tucked her into bed to rest, I asked her what she had thought of all that had happened.
“I remember the whirlwind. I remember thinking, “Oh, how magnificent.” Then, a silver light began to shine out from it and the light enveloped me. I felt transported to a wonderful place, but now I can’t see it clearly. When it faded I remember being soaking wet, looking up into your eyes, your face filled with concern. That’s all I remember.”
“That’s beautiful, honey,” I said.
I never told her what really happened.