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Family wants apology after state ferry leaves casket behind

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A Southeast Alaska family wants an apology from the state ferry system after the captain of the Aurora ordered his crew to set sail from Sitka just as a hearse drove up with a body headed for Angoon.

Ferry system officials say the vessel faced a tight window for getting to and through the Sergius Narrows while the tide was right.

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 has outraged 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 Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Perkins on Nov. 19. Taylor's district includes Sitka.

The captain, Athos Gambacorta of San Diego, has not commented. Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Marine Highway System, said Friday he hadn't talked to Gambacorta about the incident. But Capacci said Gambacorta, a competent mariner, had safety-related reasons for getting the ship under way when he did.

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.

Demmert's survivors, 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 weather caused the plane to arrive more than an hour late.

Chris Dearborn, funeral director for Prewitt Enterprises in Sitka, said within five minutes the Alaska Airlines crew had the casket in his hearse and he set off for the ferry terminal, arriving just after midnight while the ship was still tied up. 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; were 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, were not going to do this. Bring the ramp back up. Were leaving now.' I was really devastated and screaming, 'She's right there! She's right there!'''

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

''I hate to second-guess a captain in operation,'' Capacci said.

Demmert's body finally reached Angoon on Oct. 13. Several people missed the funeral due to the delay.



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