24 hours of fear: Passengers of stranded Norwegian cruise ship recount trauma

Above: Rescuers waiting to assist stranded passengers airlifted by helicopter from the cruise ship. Left: Safe at last on Sunday. Below left: Uncertainty on the high seas last Saturday.
Above: Rescuers waiting to assist stranded passengers airlifted by helicopter from the cruise ship. Left: Safe at last on Sunday. Below left: Uncertainty on the high seas last Saturday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: Rescuers waiting to assist stranded passengers airlifted by helicopter from the cruise ship. Left: Safe at last on Sunday. Below left: Uncertainty on the high seas last Saturday.
Safe at last on Sunday.PHOTO: NTB SCANPIX
Above: Rescuers waiting to assist stranded passengers airlifted by helicopter from the cruise ship. Left: Safe at last on Sunday. Below left: Uncertainty on the high seas last Saturday.
Uncertainty on the high seas last Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Through the large picture windows lining the Viking Sky, passengers watched the grey waves churn and the horizon teeter last Saturday afternoon as their massive ship, carrying 1,373 people, was overwhelmed by the sea.

Outside, a storm in the rough, frigid waters off Norway's western coast had surrounded the Britain-bound cruise ship with nearly 8m-high waves and 70kmh wind gusts.

Inside, the ship's engines had failed - setting the vessel adrift in Hustadvika Bay and towards the rocky shoreline.

Plants, a piano and lounge furniture slid across the floor with each tilt of the ship. Ceiling panels fell and icy water crashed through broken windows.

"It was frightening at first," passenger Alexus Sheppard, who posted videos online from inside the ship, told the Associated Press. "And when the general alarm sounded, it became very real."

The crew threw down an anchor and issued a mayday call. Then the wait began. For 24 hours, those aboard - a mix of American, Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand citizens - endured violent conditions as rescue teams worked to evacuate the passengers one by one. Smaller rescue boats were not a safe option because of the dangerously high swells, so the Norwegian authorities airlifted individual passengers from the ship.

Reuters reported police chief Hans Vik, who heads the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Southern Norway, as telling TV2 that the ship had drifted within 100m of the shore before the crew members were able to restart one engine. "If they had run aground, we would have faced a major disaster."

A wall of water about 2m high broke through a door and windows and swept fellow passengers... 9m across the floor. "That was the breaker. I said to myself, 'This is it', " Mr Rodney Horgen, a Minnesota resident and a weathered fisherman, said. "I grabbed my wife, but I couldn't hold on. And she was thrown across the room. And then she got thrown back again by the wave coming back."

Passenger Rodney Horgen, a Minnesota resident, told AP that he was a weathered fisherman and had never experienced anything like the conditions aboard the Viking Sky. He said a wall of water about 2m high broke through a door and windows and swept fellow passengers, including his wife Judie Lemieux, 9m across the floor.

"That was the breaker. I said to myself, 'This is it'," Mr Horgen said. "I grabbed my wife, but I couldn't hold on. And she was thrown across the room. And then she got thrown back again by the wave coming back." Coming to terms with the force and temperature of the water - and what it would do to a person tossed overboard - was "very, very frightening", Mr Horgen said. "You would not last very long."

The trip was a pilgrimage of sorts for Mr Horgen, who was looking forward to visiting the home of his ancestors.

The cruise was scheduled to pass through the Norwegian towns and cities of Narvik, Alta, Tromso, Bodo and Stavanger before docking at the British port of Tilbury on the River Thames today.

Ms Janet Jacob told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK she was among the first groups of passengers to be evacuated by helicopter. The strong winds were "like a tornado", she said, adding that she prayed "for the safety of all aboard".

"I was afraid. I've never experienced anything so scary," she said.

Viking Cruises chairman Torstein Hagen told TV2 that the passengers had "a bit of a shocking experience", adding: "Most of our passengers are senior citizens... imagine what it's like to hang there on that wire (while being lifted to the helicopter). It must be a terrible experience, but they seem to have handled it very well."

 

The Norwegian Red Cross told Reuters that even those who were not physically harmed have been "traumatised by the experience" and required care on shore.

Viking Cruises told Reuters in a statement that guests were staying in local hotels and the company was arranging flights for them to return to their home countries.

Some passengers, including Ms Sheppard, documented the entire rescue mission, sharing photos, videos and observations via social media. She shared photos of people sleeping on the floor and using life vests as pillows.

By Sunday morning, three of the ship's four engines were working again and the ship, carrying 436 guests and 458 crew members, was on its way to dry land, Viking Ocean Cruises said in a statement. In all, 479 passengers had been airlifted, and 20 people suffered injuries and were being treated at hospitals in Norway.

As the ship headed towards Molde, Norway, in calmer seas, Ms Sheppard tweeted a video of dozens of passengers shuffling around in those same bright-orange life vests. "People are so bored, they're repacking the life jackets," she said.

On Sunday afternoon, the ship docked in Molde.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline '24 Hours of fear'. Print Edition | Subscribe