Richard Knapp, retired U.S. Coast Guard commander in Juneau and former Alaska Department of Transportation commissioner under Gov. Bill Sheffield, passed away on Jan. 2, 2023. He was 93 and had lived in Juneau since being assigned there by the Coast Guard in 1980.
Knapp was promoted to rear admiral in the Coast Guard in 1978. He served on six ships, for which he was the commander of four. He was promoted to commander of the 17th Coast Guard District in Southeast Alaska in 1980. Then, he was in command when a cruise ship caught fire in the Gulf of Alaska.
On Oct. 4, 1980, just after midnight, the Prinsendam, a Holland America Line cruise ship, with more than 500 passengers and crew on board, reported a fire in the engine room, and the ship was being abandoned. Passengers and crew got into lifeboats as the ship burned in the Gulf of Alaska. The Coast Guard, Air Force and Canadian and civilian rescuers coordinated to bring everyone to safety under harrowing circumstances. Many of the passengers were elderly tourists; in heavy 12- to 15-foot seas and stiff winds, they were lifted from the lifeboats by helicopter and taken to a nearby tanker, the Williamsburg, and others taken to Yakutat and Sitka. The ship was towed toward Seattle but eventually it sank in stormy seas.
A detailed recount of the dramatic rescue can be read at this link.
Knapp had also served as vice president of the Alaska Railroad Corporation, and was the senior vice president of Harbor Enterprises, Inc. He graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and from George Washington University, where he earned a masters degree in business administration. An oral history of Knapp’s life and times is at this link.
After his retirement in 1984, Knapp was involved in various civic callings, such as chairing a group that was pushing for a road to Juneau. He served on the Juneau Chamber of Commerce board and was appointed to the Marine Transportation Advisory Board by Gov. Sean Parnell.
In 2009, he was named Juneau Citizen of the Year by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. Knapp was widowed in 2013, when his wife Pamela passed. He lived in West Juneau until recent years when he required more help and moved to a senior facility in Haines, where he was well cared for.
His friends in Juneau remained close to him throughout his life and in 2017 took him on a cruise with them through the Panama Canal. The ship’s captain was so impressed to have a retired Coast Guard commander on board, especially one who had commanded a Coast Guard ship through the canal in eras gone by, that he gave Knapp and his friends a private tour of the bridge.