The Norwegian cruise ship Viking Sky was limping to safety on Sunday morning amid a continuing dramatic rescue operation that saw hundreds of people winched off by helicopters as the powerless vessel was tossed on rough seas.
The ship carrying 1,300 passengers and crew broke down off the Norwegian coast on Saturday. Video and photos from passengers showed chairs and other furniture rolling dangerously across the floor and parts of the ceiling falling down as the vessel was tossed about. Passengers were wearing orange life vests but the waves broke some of the windows and cold water poured over their feet.
On Sunday morning, authorities said the vessel had restarted three of its four engines. A spokeswoman for Viking Cruises said: “The ship is proceeding on its own power and a tugboat is on site. The evacuation is proceeding with all necessary caution.”
Police said more than 330 of the 1,373 people on board had been taken off by Sunday morning, with each helicopter able to take 15-20 people per trip. The airlift was continuing early Sunday, emergency services spokesman Per Fjeld said.
On Saturday, rescue workers launched an emergency operation to airlift passengers and crew, with helicopters winching them from the deck one by one amid large waves and high winds.
The Norwegian newspaper VG said the ship issued a mayday call when bad weather hit and engine problems caused it to start drifting towards the rocky shore. Police in the western county of Møre og Romsdal said the crew, fearing that the ship would run aground, managed to anchor off the coast near the town of Alesund so that evacuations could take place.
Rescue teams with helicopters and boats were sent to evacuate the cruise ship under extremely difficult circumstances. Norwegian media reported gusts of up to 38 knots (43 mph) and waves over 8 metres (26 feet) in an area known for its rough, frigid waters.
Norwegian public broadcaster NRK said the Viking Sky’s evacuation was a slow and dangerous process, as passengers needed to be hoisted one by one from the cruise ship to the five available helicopters.
“I was afraid. I’ve never experienced anything so scary,” Janet Jacob, among the first group of passengers evacuated to the nearby town of Molde, told NRK. She said her helicopter ride to safety came amid strong winds “like a tornado”, prompting her to pray “for the safety of all aboard”.
American passenger John Curry told NRK he was having lunch as the cruise ship started to shake. “It was just chaos. The helicopter ride from the ship to shore I would rather not think about. It wasn’t nice,” he told the broadcaster.
NRK said one 90-year-old-man and his 70-year-old spouse on the ship were severely injured, but did not say how it happened.
Derek Browne, from Hampshire in England, said the “whole boat was swaying, it was very rough” before he and his wife Esther were airlifted to safety.
Browne told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan: “We had a few people on stretchers, several with cuts, two with broken limbs, but fortunately we were all right. We were airlifted onto the helicopter which was quite a frightening experience.”
He added: “I’d never been in a helicopter before, there were a lot of high winds, hovering overhead and the winchman came down and we were then collected up and so I shut my eyes as we arrived into the helicopter and there were 15 of us for about a 20-minute ride.”
The area where the ship got into problems, known as Hustadvika, is notoriously difficult to navigate. The shallow, 10 nautical mile section of coastline is known for its many small islands and reefs.
“Hustadvika is one of the most notorious maritime areas that we have,” Odd Roar Lange, a journalist specialising in tourism, told NRK.
Norwegian media said the majority of the passengers were British and American tourists. By 6pm about 100 people had been rescued and were being taken to a nearby sports hall.
Later, reports emerged that a cargo ship with nine crew members was in trouble nearby and the local Norwegian rescue service diverted two of the five helicopters working on the cruise ship to that rescue.
Authorities told NRK that a strong storm with high waves prevented rescue workers from using lifeboats or tugboats to take passengers ashore.
“It’s a demanding exercise, because they [passengers] have to hang in the air under a helicopter, and there’s a very, very strong wind,” witness Odd Roar Lange told NRK.
The Viking Sky was on a 12-day trip that began on 14 March in the western Norwegian city of Bergen, according to the cruisemapper.com website. It was visiting the Norwegian towns of Narvik, Alta, Tromsø, Bodø and Stavanger before its scheduled arrival on Tuesday in Tilbury on the river Thames.
The Viking Sky, a vessel with gross tonnage of 47,800, was delivered in 2017 to operator Viking Ocean Cruises.
With the Associated Press, PA and AFP