In wild seas off Norway, couple endures a stormy nightmare
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — The glasses behind the bar started rattling. That was the start of it.
Until then, Stanley and Carole Rinkunas had been having a fine time aboard the Viking Sky, the cruise liner they boarded on March 14 in the Norwegian city of Bergen. They befriended other couples, marveled at the scenery, dined, played cards — all the things they had done on 18 or so other cruises over the years.
The South Whitehall couple even saw the northern lights, the colorful sky show produced when solar wind hits the atmosphere. Seeing the lights, which are generally only visible at high latitudes, was the main reason the Rinkunases and 900 other passengers had gone on the 12-day cruise in the first place.
On Saturday, as the ship pushed out of the city of Tromsoe and headed toward its next port of call, Stanley, 74, and Carole, 71, were relaxing in a lounge. They were planning to go out in an inflatable boat to see eagles and other wildlife off Norway’s western coast.
“There was some rocking and rolling,” said Stanley, safe at his kitchen table Tuesday as he recounted the disaster that befell the Viking Sky last weekend — a combination of heavy weather and engine failure that resulted in the helicopter-and-tugboat evacuation of hundreds of passengers as the ship heaved at anchor a thousand yards from dangerous coastal rocks.
The rocking and rolling didn’t bother the cruise veterans, who had experienced rough seas before. But it quickly worsened into a deep, sickening seesaw motion. Furniture slid across the floor. Glasses fell from shelves and shattered. A display case of pastries toppled over.
Outside the glass door was the ship’s gangplank area, with a body scanner to check boarding passengers. The scanner blew over and crashed through the door.
Then the ship’s horn sounded — seven short blasts followed by a long one. It was the emergency code, meaning passengers had to report to gathering areas called muster stations.
I have never prayed so hard as I did in those hours.
— Carole Rinkunas
For Stanley and Carole, it was the restaurant at the rear of the ship, where crew members handed out life jackets.
Through the windows, the passengers could see the waves growing higher as wind howled.
All at once, the sea crashed into the room.
“A wall of water came in,” Stanley said, recounting how a sea door gave way under the relentless waves. “We were in the center of the room — a wall of people pushed me down and the water pushed Carole across the floor.”
Stanley, pinned and helpless, watched the water sweep his wife away.
“I saw her face,” he said. “I saw her eyes. I thought, ‘Am I ever going to see her again?’
“Then the ship pitched again and she came back.”
Carole’s own memory of those moments are haunting. When the water washed her back to the center of the room, she ended up submerged and stuck under the table in front of Stanley.
She was sure she would drown.
“All I saw was his legs and thought, ‘This is the last I’m going to see of my husband,’” she said.
Crew members pulled the table off and hoisted the gasping Carole out of the water.
Soaked and shivering, she sat and wondered if all of this could really be happening.
“I wasn’t ready to die on a cruise ship,” she said. “I didn’t think it would end this way.”
The ship’s captain announced that tugboats and helicopters were on the way to begin the evacuation.
He gave status updates every 15 minutes or so, as the passengers moved out of their muster stations. Most had escaped serious injury, though some were bleeding from cuts and abrasions.
For all the danger, everyone remained remarkably calm, the Rinkunases said, thanks largely to the efficient, unflappable crew of 400.
“What we didn’t know was how close we were to the rocks,” Stanley said. “Had they told us, they probably would have panicked people.”
The passengers bound for helicopters, including Stanley and Carole, were directed to the top deck. It took hours. Each aircraft only held about 15 to 20 passengers, and it took 25 minutes to fly to shore.
The pitching of the ship, of course, meant the five helicopters couldn’t land. They hovered 30 feet above the deck, fighting the wind. The passengers were strapped into harnesses and hoisted aboard.
“And guess what?” Carole said. “It was slightly snowing.”
The terror of what had befallen them on the ship made the prospect of boarding the helicopter less appalling than it would have been otherwise. So Stanley and Carole strapped themselves in and trusted to the expertise of the flight crew.
“I have never prayed so hard as I did in those hours,” Carole said.
A half-hour later, they landed at a sports facility in a small town, where the Norwegian Red Cross greeted them with food, drink and blankets.
It was about 3 a.m. — about 14 hours since the glasses started rattling in the ship’s lounge.
Things happened quickly after that. The evacuees were taken to the port city of Molde, where the Viking Sky — emptied of 479 passengers before the captain called off the evacuation — arrived Sunday.
After retrieving their luggage from the ship, Stanley and Carole flew to Oslo, London and, finally, Newark, N.J., where Jenney Henderson, their longtime friend and travel agent, picked them up.
“Carole looked so tired, and she hugged me and held on to me,” Henderson said. “I said, ‘I bet you’re exhausted.’ She said, ‘I’m beyond exhausted.’”
Carole was feeling better Tuesday, though she said the memory of the event is gnawing at her. On Monday, she jumped a little when she heard two glasses clinking together because it reminded her of the onset of the trouble.
“It’s the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me in my life,” she said. “I wish I were making this up. I wish this didn’t happen. But it did.”
That said, the Rinkunases said they won’t hesitate to board another cruise ship.
Maybe even a Viking ship. The company — which has ordered an internal investigation of the event, in addition to cooperating with a Norwegian government probe — has refunded their money and offered a free voyage.
“But,” Stanley said, “we might not choose to go on the Norwegian coast in winter again.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com