This photo provided by Michal Stewart shows passengers on board the Viking Sky, waiting to be evacuated, off the coast of Norway on Saturday, March 23, 2019. Rescue workers off Norway's western coast rushed to evacuate 1,300 passengers and crew from the disabled cruise ship by helicopter on Saturday, winching them one-by-one to safety as heaving waves tossed the ship from side to side and high winds battered the operation. (Michal Stewart via AP)

Norway cruise ship heads to port with 479 rescued, 20 hurt

March 24, 2019 - 9:43 am

STAVANGER, Norway (AP) — Rescue helicopters took more than 475 passengers from a cruise ship that got stranded off Norway's western coast in bad weather before the vessel departed for a nearby port under escort and with nearly 900 people still on board, the ship's owner said Sunday.

The Viking Sky carried 1,373 passengers and crew members when it had engine trouble in an unpredictable area of the Norwegian coast known for rough, frigid waters. The crew issued a mayday call Saturday afternoon.

Five helicopters flying in the pitch dark took passengers from the tossing ship in a painstaking process that continued throughout the night. The rescues took place under difficult conditions that included wind gusts up to 38 knots (43 mph) and waves over 8 meters (26 feet).

"Currently we understand 20 people suffered injuries as a result of this incident, and they are all receiving care at the relevant medical centers in Norway, with some already having been discharged," Viking Ocean Cruises, the company that owns and operates the ship, said.

The company said in a statement that before the ship started being towed to the port of Molde, 479 passengers had been airlifted to land by helicopters, leaving 436 passengers and 458 crew members onboard.

"We saw two people taken off by stretcher," passenger Dereck Brown told Norwegian newspaper Romsdal Budstikke. "People were alarmed. Many were frightened but they were calm."

Passenger Alexus Sheppard told The Associated Press in a message sent from the Viking Sky that people with injuries or disabilities were winched off the cruise ship first. The atmosphere onboard grew calmer after the rescue operation's first dramatic hours, Sheppard said.

"It was frightening at first. And when the general alarm sounded it became VERY real," she wrote.

Photos posted on social media showed the ship listing from side to side and furniture smashing violently into walls.

"The last 24 hours have been very, very scary, very frightening," an American passenger, Rodney Horgen, told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. "The best word I suppose is surreal."

Horgen said he was having lunch at one of the cruise ship's restaurants when the ship started tipping from one side to another. The motion was strong enough to have "people falling over. Dishes were all over the place," he said.

Crew members urged passengers to go down to their cabins. While Horgen thought it was only a precaution, he rushed, as ordered, to his designated evacuation point.

Things had remained, he said, "pretty calm" until that point when suddenly one of Viking Sky's large windows broke "and sea water just came rushing in, hitting past tables, chairs and broken glass" and wiping people off their feet.

"I was standing and my wife was sitting in front of me and all of sudden she was gone. I thought this was it, the water's going to rush in," Horgen said. "Things were going through my mind....Titanic....I lot of things go through your brain."

Police said the crew, fearing the ship would run aground, managed to anchor in Hustadvika Bay so the evacuations could take place. A tug boat and two other vessels were assisting the Viking Sky travel from the bay to Molde.

Coast guard official Emil Heggelund estimated to newspaper VG that the ship was 100 meters (328 feet) from striking rocks under the water and 900 meters (2,953 feet) from shore when it stopped.

The ship was visiting the Norwegian towns and cities of Narvik, Alta, Tromso, Bodo and Stavanger before its scheduled arrival Tuesday in the British port of Tilbury on the River Thames. The passengers mostly were a mix of American, British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian citizens.

The airlifts continued at a steady pace Sunday morning, as the vessel was being prepared for towing by two tugboats to the nearby town of Molde, according to Per Fjerd at the Joint Rescue Coordination Center.

The helicopters stopped taking people off the ship when the ship was ready for the trip to shore. Three of the ship's four engines were working as of Sunday morning, the center said.

Norway news agency NTB reported Sunday afternoon the Viking Sky was traveling under its own power at a speed of 7 knots and not being towed. It was expected to arrive around 6 p.m. local time (1700 GMT) at the earliest .

The Viking Sky, a vessel with a gross tonnage of 47,800, was delivered in 2017 to operator Viking Ocean Cruises.

Viking Cruises chairman Torstein Hagen praised the rescue operation by Norwegian authorities and the actions of the vessel's crew.

He told Norway's VG newspaper that the events surrounding the Viking Sky were "some of the worst I have been involved in, but now it looks like it's going well in the end and that we've been lucky."

Shipping tycoon Hagen is one of Norway's richest men and the founder of the Switzerland-based Viking Cruises that operates river and ocean cruises under two business units.

"I'm very proud of our crew," Hagen told VG.

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Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki, Finland.

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