Rescuers were working Sunday to airlift more than 1,300 passengers and crew off a cruise ship after it became disabled in rough seas off the Norwegian coast.
Helicopter winched passengers one-by-one to safety as heaving waves tossed the ship from side to side and high winds battered the operation.
The Viking Sky issued a mayday call Saturday as bad weather hit and engine problems caused it to start drifting toward the rocky shore, the Norwegian newspaper VG reported. Police in the western county of Moere og Romsdal said the crew, fearing the ship would run aground, managed to anchor in Hustadvika Bay, between the Norwegian cities of Alesund and Trondheim, so the evacuations could take place.
Rescue teams with helicopters and boats were sent to evacuate the cruise ship under extremely difficult circumstances, including gusts up to 38 knots (43 mph) and waves over 8 meters (26 feet). The area is known for its rough, frigid waters.
Norwegian public broadcaster NRK said the Viking Sky’s evacuation was a slow and dangerous process, as passengers needed to be hoisted one-by-one from the cruise ship to the five available helicopters.
“I was afraid. I’ve never experienced anything so scary,” Janet Jacob, among the first group of passengers evacuated to the nearby town of Molde, told NRK.
She said her helicopter ride to safety came amid strong winds “like a tornado,” prompting her to pray “for the safety of all aboard.”
The majority of the cruise ship passengers were reportedly British and American tourists. About 180 have been evacuated so far, according to rescue officials.
Per Fjeld of the Joint Rescue Center Southern Norway said there was no danger to the remaining passengers and the airlift can accommodate all of them. He said the rescue would speed up when there was better light and the weather improved.
By early Sunday, the crew had managed to restart three of its four engines.
The vessel was making slow headway at two to three knots off the dangerous, rocky coast and a tug would help it towards the port of Molde, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) northwest of Oslo, officials said.
Police said 338 of the 1,373 people on board had so far been taken off by helicopter, with each chopper able to take 15-20 people per trip.
The airlift was continuing early Sunday, emergency services spokesman Per Fjeld said.
Video and photos from people on the ship showed it heaving, with chairs and other furniture dangerously rolling from side to side.
Passengers were suited up in orange life vests but the waves broke some ship windows and cold water flowed over the feet of some passengers.
American passenger John Curry told NRK that he was having lunch as the cruise ship started to shake.
“It was just chaos. The helicopter ride from the ship to shore I would rather not think about. It wasn’t nice,” Curry told the broadcaster.
NRK said one 90-year-old-man and his 70-year-old spouse on the ship were severely injured but did not say how that happened.
Later, reports emerged that a cargo ship with nine crew members was in trouble nearby, and the local Norwegian rescue service diverted two of the five helicopters working on the cruise ship to that rescue.
Authorities told NRK that a strong storm with high waves was preventing rescue workers from using life boats or tug boats to take passengers ashore.
Fjeld said rescuers were prioritizing the nine crew members aboard the Hagland Captain cargo ship, but later said they had all been rescued and the helicopters had returned to help the Viking Sky.
He said that with two more of the Viking Sky’s engines now in operation there is the possibility of sailing, though he would not say whether there is an intention of sailing to shore.
The Viking Sky was on a 12-day trip that began March 14 in the western Norwegian city of Bergen, according to the cruisemapper.com website.
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 Viking Sky, a vessel with gross tonnage of 47,800, was delivered in 2017 to operator Viking Ocean Cruises.