STAVANGER, Norway (AP) — More than 450 passengers have been airlifted off a cruise ship that got stranded off Norway’s western coast in bad weather before the rescue operation was suspended Sunday, so the vessel could be towed to a nearby port, Norwegian authorities said.
Five helicopters flying in the pitch dark took the evacuated 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).
Some 17 people were hospitalized with injuries, police said.
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.
“We saw two people taken off by stretcher,” another passenger, Dereck Brown, told Norwegian newspaper Romsdal Budstikke. “People were alarmed. Many were frightened but they were calm.”
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.
Police said the crew, fearing the ship would run aground, managed to anchor in Hustadvika Bay so the evacuations could take place.
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 the shore, and 463 passengers had been evacuated by that time, the Joint Rescue center said. Three of the ship’s four engines were working as of Sunday morning, the center said.
The Viking Sky, a vessel with a gross tonnage of 47,800, was delivered in 2017 to operator Viking Ocean Cruises.