Body found in search for ship passenger

NO POSITIVE I.D.: Woman washes up on a Southeastern island along route of vessel that reported missing traveler.

August 3, 2009 

The body of a woman was discovered during a search for a passenger presumed to have gone overboard from a Holland America cruise ship sometime after midnight Monday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The passenger, Washington resident Amber Malkuch, 45, disappeared from the Zaandam on its route between Douglas Island and Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska State Troopers said. A search of the vessel turned up no sign of her.

The Coast Guard, joined by civilian vessels and aircraft, launched a massive search of the 80-mile stretch of glacial-fed water with a temperature of about 57 degrees between Juneau and the park.

About 4:30 p.m. Monday, a helicopter found a body washed up on the west side of Douglas Island, the Coast Guard said. The tide had apparently carried the body to shore and left it high on the beach as it receded.

The body was taken to Juneau to be positively identified, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

"The search is continuing," Coast Guard Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios said. "We do not know for sure if that's the body; however it is a female and she was found within the search area."

The last known sighting of Malkuch was when she ordered room service about 12:30 a.m., as the ship was near Douglas Island. She was reported missing by her roommate and travelling companion about 9 a.m., after the ship was already in the park, Ipsen said.

How she might have fallen overboard was not known and was to become the subject of an investigation. Also unclear was why the roommate did not report the woman missing until about 9 a.m.

"It's all still a really big mystery right now," Rios said. "We really don't know what happened. The Alaska State Troopers and the Coast Guard are conducting an investigation."

The Zaandam, which can carry 1,432 passengers, sailed from Seattle on Friday bound for Alaska on a seven-day cruise. It departed Juneau headed for Glacier Bay on Sunday and was continuing its scheduled voyage after Malkuch's disappearance, according to Holland America.

"At this point, we haven't even really had very good contact with the boat," Ipsen said. "Troopers are going to respond to Sitka, that's where the ship is docking (today), to do their investigation, talk to the travelling companion to find out what happened."

After getting the report the woman was missing, the crew searched the 780-foot vessel but turned up no sign of her, Holland America said in a statement. The company offered no further details on the circumstances surrounding the disappearance.

According to the Coast Guard, there were no obvious signs of foul play, nor did it appear any of the vessel's survival gear was missing.

Investigators would likely be examining security footage as part of their effort to figure out how the woman fell overboard, Rios said. The area between the mountain ranges can get fairly windy, although Rios said he wasn't aware of severe conditions in the area overnight.

After getting the report of a missing person about 10 a.m., the Coast Guard launched an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Sitka, diverted patrol boats Long Island and Liberty to the scene and dispatched two rescue boats from Juneau.

The Civil Air Patrol helped with two airplanes and the park service launched a number of boats to scan the shoreline in the area of Stephens Passage, Lynn Canal and Icy Strait, according to the Coast Guard.

A TEMSCO Helicopters aircraft, which Holland America had contracted to aid in the search, found the body late in the afternoon and delivered it to the Coast Guard, Rios said. An official with the Wrangell-based aviation company declined to comment Monday evening.


Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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