OSLO - A cruise liner that ran into trouble in rough seas off Norway was being towed to port on Sunday after hundreds of passengers had been helicoptered to safety.
The Viking Sky lost power and started drifting mid-afternoon Saturday in perilous waters about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) off More og Romsdal, prompting the captain to send out a distress call.
Rather than run the risk of leaving people on board, local officials launched an airlift in very difficult conditions.
“We would rather have the passengers on land rather than on board the ship,” police chief Tor Andre Franck said.
By Sunday, the crew had managed to restart three of its four engines and two tugs arrived.
Authorities said 460 of the 1,373 people on board had been taken off by five helicopters before the airlift was halted to allow the towing to start.
Police said 17 people had been taken to hospital. One person in their 90s and two 70-year-olds suffered serious fractures.
“The evacuation has been put on pause for now,” a spokesman for southern Norway’s rescue center said.
“The captain will weigh up the situation” before deciding if the airlift resumes, he added.
The vessel was heading for the port of Molde, which was about 60 kilometers (45 miles) away. It is about 500 kilometers northwest of Oslo, officials said.
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 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”
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!”
The Viking Sky sent out a distress signal due to “engine problems in bad weather,” the rescue center tweeted earlier.
The ship was sailing south from Tromso to Stavanger when engine trouble struck in an area 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 U.S. and Britain.
“For the moment everything appears to be going well,” said Einar Knutsen, a spokesman at the center.
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 U.S. and British nationals, there were also passengers from 14 other countries on board, Fjeld said.