Rescue operation wins tributes

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Grateful passengers couldn’t seem to praise Norwegian search and rescue efforts enough on Sunday, after the dramatic near-grounding of their cruiseship in a major storm on Saturday. As one man put it, “I didn’t see much of the Northern Lights, but I met the Norwegian people.”

Cruiseship passenger Hui Boon Tan being interviewed by state broadcaster NRK, after his dramatic rescue by helicopter. He was among those full of praise and gratitude for the Norwegian rescue operation. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Hui Boon Tan gave a lengthy, articulate and heartfelt interview to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday, after he was one of the nearly 400 passengers hoisted up to a hovering helicopter from the deck of the stricken cruiseship Viking Sky in a severe storm. The vessel lost power, was plunged into darkness and adrift in an area full of rocky islands.

“First of all, we never expected anything like this to happen, but when it did, the people on the ship were very well-organized, and very disciplined,” Hui told NRK. “And surprisingly, there was no panic among the passengers. They all followed the instructions of the crew.

“And then they organized the rescue effort. The rescue effort by the Norwegian team and the helicopters was just wonderful. They worked very hard, because they could only take 20 passengers each time and there were 1,300 of us. And they worked tirelessly.

“And when we arrived (on land), the Red Cross, the police, ambulances, they were all there to receive us and make us feel very welcome. And they looked after us. There were medical teams, too.

“And then we were bussed to this hotel in Molde (the upscale Seilet on the city’s scenic waterfront), and the receptionists were prepared already, and they gave us rooms and made us feel very welcome. I’ve had an experience I will take home to my country. Thank you very much.”

Passenger Ruth McIntyre said the rescue helicopters “zipped us up and huge arms grabbed us and got us into the chopper and they said ‘welcome aboard!'” At right, her husband David. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Ruth and David McIntyre from the US were also full of praise as they walked around in Molde after a highly unexpected end to their cruise. “I think all in all we were extremely fortunate,” Ruth McIntyre told NRK. “It could have been a remarkably horrible disaster.”

Her husband David also noted how everyone remained calm, “and I think that came from the crew.” His wife agreed: “Viking is an exceptional cruise line. They train and train and train for this kind of thing. They knew exactly what to do.”

Both also praised the helicopter rescue effort. “Those helicopter pilots were amazing, your Norwegian Coast Guard is amazing,” Ruth McIntyre said. “They zipped us up and huge arms grabbed us and got us into the chopper and they said ‘welcome aboard!’ And I said ‘glad to be here!'”

Some passengers said they still felt they were in a state of shock after the drama of being on a ship that listed 45 degrees back and forth, and then being hoisted up to the helicopters. Denise Tozer from London had visible bruises on her face but told NRK that “the people who helped us were fantastic.” Her husband Mike also called the rescue operation “amazing, they have looked after us so well. You must be very proud to be Norwegian, because everyone has been so supportive and done everything possible for us, so we’re really grateful. Thank you very much.”

PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The rescue effort was coordinated by the state’s rescue central (Hovedrednings-sentralen) and included helicopters, rescue vessels and local teams from the area in Romsdal, on the northwest coast between Molde and Kristiansund. The chairman and founder of Viking Ocean Cruises, Torstein Hagen of Bergen, flew quickly to the scene as did Norway’s transport minister, Jon Georg Dale, and the government minister now in charge of preparedness, Ingvild Smines Tybring-Gjedde. Both ministers were visibly relieved the rescue operation was carried out well and, not least, that it was successful with no loss of human life.

“It’s been 24 hours with a demanding and serious situation,” Tybring-Gjedde told NRK after she arrived in Molde to personally thank rescue workers, volunteers and the ship’s crew, and greet passengers. “It’s all thanks to Hovedredningssentralen together with the local municipalities, the county, civilian and professional rescue workers.”

They in turn were impressed with the passengers and how well they reacted, not least after going on board the vessel after it could restart engines and cruise with escort vessels at slow speed to Molde. The damage on board the vessel was proof of what it and everyone on board had been through.

‘Quite a joy ride’
Passengers also were full of praise for the rescue operation in conversations with Tybring-Gjedde. “It’s not difficult to be proud today,” she told NRK. “Our preparedness functioned when we really needed it.”

One couple from San Francisco in their 70s were hooked together and hoisted up to the helicopter and were also raving about the ship’s crew, their fellow passengers’ calm and the “incredibly professional” helicopter crew. “It was quite a joy ride,” joked Allan Dullberg to NRK. “We were pulled into the helicopter, and their calmness and smiles on their faces indicated to us that everything was in good order.”

They said they, like many others, had no time to fetch their passports or other belongings before the evacuation began. Staff from the British, Canadian and US  embassies in Oslo flew to Molde on Sunday to help their citizens, but it was also possible for many to go back on board the vessel and to their cabins to gather necessities.

Viking Ocean Cruises was making arrangments to send passengers home, with some flying out already on Sunday. Viking chairman Hagen expressed sympathy for the passengers, acknowleding that being on a ship adrift in stormy seas, and being hoised up into helicopters “must have been a terrible experience.” The passengers seemed far more positive.

“The amazing thing in this country,” Hui Boon Tan told NRK, “is that it’s so big, and the population is so few, and yet they mastered how to work together to help, to make us feel comfortable. I think it’s a wonderful achievement for the Norwegian people.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund