Stricken Norwegian cruise ship reaches port after airlift drama

OSLO, Norway (3rd UPDATE) – A cruise liner that ran into trouble in stormy seas off Norway reached port under its own steam Sunday, March 24, after hundreds of passengers were winched to safety by helicopter in a spectacular rescue operation.

Escorted by tugboats, the Viking Sky arrived in the port of Molde at around 4:15 pm (1515 GMT), television images showed. Nearly a third of its 1,373 passengers and crew had already been airlifted off the ship.

The cruise liner lost power and started drifting on Saturday afternoon, March 23, two kilometers (1.2 miles) off a stretch of Norwegian coastline notorious for shipwrecks.

The captain sent out a Mayday prompting authorities to launch the airlift in difficult conditions rather than run the risk of leaving people on board.

Some 460 of the 1,373 people on the ship had been taken off by 5 helicopters before the airlift was halted.

Police said 17 people had been taken to hospital. One person more than 90 years old and two 70-year-olds suffered serious fractures. 

With 3 of 4 engines restarted Sunday, two tugs towed the vessel away from dangerous reefs before it set sail for Molde, 500 kilometers (300 miles) northwest of Oslo, under its own power.

Dramatic footage of the passengers' ordeal showed furniture and plants sliding round the lurching vessel as parts of the ceiling came down.

Dozens of passengers wearing life jackets were seen seated waiting to get off the vessel.

"I have never seen anything so frightening," said Janet Jacob, who was rescued.

"I started to pray. I prayed for the safety of everyone on board," she told the NRK television channel.

"The helicopter trip was terrifying. The winds were like a tornado," she added. 

"We were sitting down for breakfast when things started to shake.... It was just chaos," said another passenger, American John Curry, as quoted in Norwegian by media.

Passenger Rodney Horgen said he had been reminded of the Titanic.

"The best word, I guess, is surreal," he said.

"Sea water 6-7 feet (about two meters) high just came rushing in, hit the tables, chairs, broken glass, and 20-30 people just...went right in front of me.

"I was standing, my wife was sitting in front of me, and all of a sudden, she was gone. And I thought this was the end," Horgan said.

But it all ended well for Ryan Flynn. "Here's my 83-year-old dad being airlifted from the #vikingsky," he said.

"We are all off the ship safely!"

Notorious seas

The ship was sailing south from Tromso to Stavanger when engine trouble struck mid-afternoon on Saturday in an area off More og Romsdal that has claimed many vessels.

"It is dangerous to encounter engine problems in these waters, which hide numerous reefs," said Tor Andre Franck, the head of police operations.

A reception center was set up in a gym on shore to accommodate the evacuees, many of whom are elderly and from the United States and Britain.

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 dotted with small islands and reefs.

"Hustadvika is one of the most notorious maritime areas that we have," Odd Roar Lange, a journalist specializing in tourism, told NRK.

In their time, the Vikings hesitated to venture into the Hustadvika, preferring instead to transport their boats by land from one fjord to another.

Operated by the Norwegian firm Viking Ocean Cruises, the Viking Sky was launched in 2017 with a capacity of 930 passengers plus crew.

In addition to US and British nationals, there were also passengers from 14 other countries on board, Fjeld said.

The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said on Sunday that the ship has 163 Filipino crew members, "all safe." –