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Stricken liner sails for port after hundreds airlifted to safety

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By Agence France-Presse

A cruise liner that ran into trouble in stormy seas off Norway was Sunday heading for the nearest port under its own steam after hundreds of passengers were taken by helicopter to safety.

The Viking Sky lost power and started drifting Saturday afternoon in perilous waters two kilometers (1.2 miles) off More og Romsdal, prompting the captain to send out a distress call.

Rescuers wait to assist stranded passengers who were airlifted by helicopter from the cruise ship Viking Sky on March 24, 2019 in Hustadvika on the west coast of Norway near Romsdal. - A cruise ship that broke down in rough seas off the Norwegian coast with some 1,300 passengers and crew on board has restarted three of its four engines and will be towed to port, emergency services said. The Viking Sky lost power and started drifting mid-afternoon on march 23, 2019 about two kilometres (1.2 miles) off More og Romsdal in dangerous waters and high seas, prompting the captain to send out a distress call and trigger a massive airlift operation. (Photo by Svein Ove EKORNESVAAG / NTB Scanpix / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Rescuers wait to assist stranded passengers who were airlifted by helicopter from the cruise ship Viking Sky on March 24, 2019 in Hustadvika on the west coast of Norway near Romsdal. (Photo by Svein Ove EKORNESVAAG / NTB Scanpix / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

The authorities launched an airlift in difficult conditions rather than run the risk of leaving people on board.

Some 460 of the 1,373 people on board had been taken off by five helicopters before the airlift was halted to allow towing to begin.

Police said 17 people had been taken to hospital. One person aged in the 90s and two 70-year-olds suffered serious fractures.

With three of four engines restarted Sunday, two tugs towed the vessel away from dangerous reefs.

The Viking Sky was heading for the port of Molde, and expected to arrive during the afternoon. The city lies some 500 kilometers (300 miles) northwest of Oslo, officials said.

“The boat is sailing with its own engines with tugs fore and aft,” rescue coordinator Jan Morten Dale told a press conference.

“That shows that things are relatively under control on board.”

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 local media.

Passenger Rodney Horgan 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 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 for the evacuees, many of whom are elderly and from the United States and Britain.

“For the moment everything appears to be going well,” said a rescue center spokesman, Einar Knutsen.

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.

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