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Norway cruise ship reaches port after hundreds of passengers evacuated

Odd Roar Lange, NTB Scanpix, AFP | The Viking Sky cruise liner sent out a distress signal when near the western Norwegian coast of Hustadvika on March 23, reporting ‘engine problems in bad weather’

A Norwegian cruise ship that lost engine power in stormy seas safely reached port under its own steam on Sunday after some 460 passengers were evacuated by helicopter in a spectacular rescue operation.

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The Viking Sky, with 1,373 passengers and crew on board, sent out a mayday signal on Saturday after it lost engine power and drifted towards a rocky stretch of Norwegian coastline that is notorious for shipwrecks.

Rescue workers then launched a high-risk evacuation of the ship's passengers and crew, winching them one by one up to helicopters as heaving waves tossed the ship from side to side.

“It was very nearly a disaster. The ship drifted to within 100 metres of running aground before they were able to restart one of the engines,” police chief Hans Vik, who heads the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre for southern Norway, told TV2.

“If they had run aground we would have faced a major disaster.”

The airlift of passengers from the ship by helicopter was suspended on Sunday morning as two tugboats started steering the vessel towards the port of Molde.

Images and film posted by passengers on social media showed furniture sliding around as the vessel drifted in waves of up to eight metres (26 feet).

'Winds like a tornado'

Rescued passengers described their ordeal. "I have never seen anything so frightening," said one of those rescued, Janet Jacob.

"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 having lunch when it began to shake. Window panes were broken and water came in. It was just chaos. The trip on the helicopter, I would rather forget. It was not fun," American passenger John Curry told public broadcaster NRK on Saturday.

"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."

Many of the passengers were American and British tourists.

Some 17 injured passengers had been taken to hospital, a local rescue coordinator told a news conference early on Sunday, while others suffered minor cuts and bruises.

One was taken to St. Olav's Hospital in the town of Trondheim, which is central Norway's most advanced medical facility. Others were taken to local hospitals in the region.

"Many have also been traumatised by the experience and need care when they arrive on shore," the Norwegian Red Cross said in a statement.

Stormy weather conditions had improved in the early hours of Sunday, with winds blowing at 14 metres per second, down from 24 metres per second previously, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs.

Built in 2017, the Viking Sky is 227 metres long (745 feet) and 29 metres wide, according to the Viking Ocean Cruises website.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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