Norwegian authorities are investigating why the Viking Sky cruise ship sailed despite a weather warning, leading to engine failure, a mayday call and air evacuations.
It was supposed to be a cruise vacation of their dreams, a trip to see the magical Northern Lights off Norway. Instead, it sailed into a cruise nightmare.
Dead engines. Stranded in frigid, rough seas, beset by a howling storm. In peril of foundering on offshore rocks. Forced to evacuate hundreds of terrified passengers by helicopter in pitch dark.
According to one of the crew members of the Viking Sky cruise ship, one of the newest ships of the vaunted luxury line, Viking Ocean Cruises, the last 48 hours on board will not soon be forgotten by any of the 1,373 passengers and crew.
“Everything was broken: plates, glasses, furniture,” the crew member said, describing scenes in the ship’s restaurants and lounges. He said he saw a heavy grand piano go flying upside down inside a lounge. The crew member requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The front of the ship was the most imbalanced, he said, and was most affected by the waves. “You can’t even stand up,” he said. As a result, some of the passengers and crew couldn’t move immediately when the alarms first sounded, signalling the order to move to emergency stations.
“It was a nightmare,” he said. “People were panicking, everybody was running, some people were crying. People are shocked, you can see it in their faces. They can’t believe they survived.”
Neither can the crew member, who spoke to USA TODAY by phone from Molde, the port in western Norway where the Viking Sky found safety Monday after being pushed and pulled by tug boats for hours of slow sailing on Sunday.
Although he described the crew as well-trained for emergencies, he said he called his family at one point when the Wi-Fi was working “to say goodbye. I was thinking it was going to sink when we listed.”
To get to the life jackets, he said, crew members had to open doors onto open decks and into the wind and form human chains to distribute the life jackets while the ship was leaning perilously close to the frigid water below.
“I can see the ocean, we’re on the second floor, and the waves are reaching up to the second floor, like 30 feet. We’re at about 45 degrees. You can fall in if you miss a step. I’ve never experienced this kind of situation before.”
He said the lifeboats were of no use, apparently because the lack of power meant they could not be moved, and the seas were too rough anyway.
After the order to evacuate came, rescuers worked all night Saturday and into Sunday to airlift 479 passengers (about half the total) to shore by a fleet of five helicopters flying in the dark, slowly winching people up one-by-one from the heaving ship as the waves crashed and the winds shrieked.
Despite the danger, the crew member said some passengers rushed to be airlifted, fearing the ship would sink before rescue.
“Some of the crew are still in shock but most of us feel proud and brave. We managed to take care of the guests and keep control of the situation,” the crew member said. “Some of the crew went beyond their duties by going to guests’ cabins to get their medicines.”
All of the passengers and crew members survived, though some passengers were injured in the chaos on board, he said, adding he saw one passenger on a stretcher who has suffered a broken neck. The Associated Press reported one person was in critical condition, and eight others were hospitalized as of Monday morning.
Most of the passengers were on their way home Monday, but the crew was still on the ship, trying to clean up the mess as repairs began and investigators arrived to examine what went wrong and why.
The ship’s next scheduled trip, a cruise to Scandinavia and Germany that was to leave on Wednesday, has been canceled. The crew member said the ship is expected to leave Molde on April 6, but he’s not sure yet where it will head. He said the ship’s home port is Bergen, Norway on the northwest coast.
The crew member, who has worked for Viking for three years and has worked on the Viking Sky since it was launched two years ago, said the cruise to see the Northern Lights was nearing an end when the crisis began on Saturday morning. The ship’s four engines began shutting down in the midst of a storm that started late Friday and heaved up waves as high as 50 feet and winds up to 40 mph.
As the ship drifted without power, the crew threw out anchors to keep it in place, fearing it would be smashed on treacherous offshore rocks. He said the ship started to list, and the crew rushed to grab life jackets and distribute them to the passengers, some of them elderly.
“When the engine died, the ship was listing too much, the old people could not stand by themselves,” he said. “We were taking care of the guests, trying to calm them down. We didn’t sleep for 48 hours.”
He said he believes the crew’s training was up to the job of dealing with the emergency. “We were well-prepared, we didn’t panic at all, we knew what we were doing,” he said. “We trusted the company that we would be saved.”
He still can’t believe it happened, but he’s “very, very relieved” it’s over.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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