Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rescue ship crewmember describes 'frightful' scene, Posted by Robert Paisola

The MS Explorer, a small Canadian cruise ship carrying tourists from 14 nations, including Canada, struck a chunk of ice before dawn Friday. Twenty hours later, it sank in Antarctic waters.

Here's a first-hand account from a Canadian crewmember with the Norwegian cruise liner, the MS Nordnorge, that answered the Explorer's distress call early Friday.

Taylor Echlin, of Mississauga, Ont., describes the 'frightful' sight that greeted him during the rescue of ship's passengers.

The real story, he told in an email, "is about the Captain and crew of the MS Nordnorge.

Their rescue efforts were perfect."

MS Nordnorge's Taylor Echlin recounts the rescue efforts.

Hi everyone:

This is the email you all want to receive. I'm going to tell you about the rescue at sea of the passengers of the MS Explorer by the crew of the MS Nordnorge.

Friday morning, November 23 ... By 0600 I'm up -- shower and shave, put on brand new clean clothes ... and then tidy up the cabin for our cabin steward.

As I leave our stateroom there is an announcement by Franze over the PA system -- "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I'm sorry to wake you at this early hour, but there's been a change in our day's plans.

We are rushing to the rescue of a sinking ship. We will be there shortly. Please do not use decks 5 and 7. We need to keep those decks clear so our crew can do their proper work, and effect the rescue. We will provide you with more information later."

I re-entered the cabin, got dressed properly for being outside, and picked up my camera....
Here's what happened on the MS Explorer the previous night -- the ship had about 100 passengers, 8 Expedition leaders, and 50 crew.

The MS Explorer was plowing through an enormous ice floe. ... Some time around midnight -- just as they were about to exit the ice floe -- the ship plowed into the very last growler which punctured a fist-sized hole in the starboard side. The ship started taking on water.

The passengers were sleeping in their cabins on Deck 3. One fellow woke up at the sound of the ice hit -- and heard trickling -- like a tap was running.

Soon there was water on his floor. The passenger went to find a crew member -- who came down, tasted the salt water, and knew immediately that they had a problem. Soon water was flooding the third deck -- and the passengers started clearing the floor of their belongings. ...
The Captain ordered everyone to their muster stations. ...

Sometime around 0100 the Captain gave the "Abandon Ship" order.

... The ship was listing badly at that time. The crew had trouble lowering the lifeboats -- as the electricity had now gone out. ...

The engine compartment crew could not start the diesel engine that ran the lifeboat system -- allowing the boats to be lowered -- so they had to hand crank the diesel fuel pumps and hand crank the engine to start it.

The order of events doesn't quite make sense -- as the engine room would be below deck 3 -- but I'm just repeating what passengers told us.

There were only four lifeboats -- with (a few) black rubber expedition dinghies. ...

Many of the MS Explorer lifeboats took on water over the side.

One lady was totally soaked. When she came on board the MS Nordnorge -- she emptied her boots filled with water into a toilet.

'A frightful scene'

The lifeboats drifted away from the MS Explorer for four hours during the night -- first light was before 0300.

When our ship came upon them -- the lifeboats were scattered around the sea. The MS Explorer passengers told us the most beautiful sight they ever had seen were the floodlights of the National Geographic ship coming toward them from the horizon.

The MS Nordnorge appeared shortly after -- and as both ships approached the stranded passengers -- they all quipped that they wanted to be rescued by the bigger, more luxurious ship -- which was ours.

You simply cannot imagine the frightful scene that greeted us when we went out on deck.

The four lifeboats filled to capacity with wet, tired, scared persons were being towed towards our ship by the black rubber dinghies. The MS Nordnorge rescue crew (was) in the Polar Cirkel boats, as well as our super fast rescue launch -- organizing the rescue from the water.

I took hundreds of pictures. It was a truly awful sight -- but they were going to be rescued. Two techniques were being used.

The MS Nordnorge had lowered two of our life rafts to the water -- where they were secured as best possible to the side of the ship. The MS Explorer lifeboats were brought alongside our life rafts -- the passengers were then transferred from their lifeboat to our life raft -- and our life raft was then lifted up to the deck 5 muster station -- where the rescued passengers were offloaded.

The second technique was to offload passengers from the MS Explorer lifeboats to the MS Nordnorge Polar Cirkel boats -- and then bring them to our ship for offloading.

The MS Nordnorge rescue crew was extremely well trained. They completed the rescue in a very timely fashion -- using the two techniques to make the rescue faster. They were as competent as they could be -- and I'm absolutely certain that they were kind and compassionate too.

The entire rescue was completed by about 0730. What was left floating in the water were four empty lifeboats, and the six black rubber expedition dinghies. That was an eerie, lonely sight. Inside the MS Nordnorge

The National Geographic ship was standing by to offer assistance if needed -- but our Captain completed the rescue with his own crew. We then slowly made our way to the MS Explorer.

What a sad looking little ship it was -- listing to starboard with its deck rails in the water. We stood by -- with our Captain getting the MS Nordnorge to within 100 feet or so of the sinking ship.

Inside the MS Nordnorge -- our crew and medical staff were tending to the rescued passengers -- who were all placed in the comfortable salons on Deck 7.

Fredericke (one of our expedition leaders) made an announcement that these woeful MS Explorer passengers were wet and cold. If any of us would offer to give up some of our clothes -- that gesture would be a good start to the recovery of the rescued passengers. George and I immediately went to our cabins and brought up two armfuls of clothes -- just freshly washed.

We gave away socks, underwear, long underwear, shirts, pants, and sweaters. We were about fifth or sixth in line to give Fredericke our bundles -- and the long line-up behind us took probably half an hour to clear.

The MS Explorer passengers then were welcomed on board the ship by Franz -- our expedition leader. They were invited downstairs to have breakfast -- and many of us greeted them as they walked down the centre ship's staircase.

They were in total shock -- many looking dazed and disoriented.

One man said he was wearing donated socks, pants, shirt, sweater, and some lady's underwear.

They were just so glad to be aboard our ship -- and our warm welcome made them feel so much better.

As they walked through the salons in Deck 4 -- they looked out the viewing windows at their wounded, listing, and sinking ship -- the MS Explorer.

All the emotions you could imagine were vented out by the passengers.

Many were on their second or third expedition on that ship -- and had loved it dearly and felt secure. Others damned it, and were too upset to see it again from the safe vantage point of our ship.

Back outside, the MS Explorer continued to take on water. A Brazilian Navy patrol boat was steaming to the scene -- and we stood by until they arrived. The rescue had taken place in absolutely perfect conditions -- winds of five knots, and calm seas. Two hours later the winds were picking up -- and the MS Explorer was drifting quickly towards and enormous ice floe. It was perhaps only 500 metres away from the ice when the MS Nordnorge departed the scene. ...

Back on board -- our crew did three separate checks of the passenger list from the MS Explorer. There were 15 people unaccounted for -- but they had made their way to various parts of our ship -- and soon Franz announced that all passengers, expedition leaders, and crew were accounted for and safely on our ship. There was a hearty cheer and applause on board from our passengers.

During the day we met with and talked to the rescued voyagers. They were a much younger crowd than on board the MS Nordnorge. Their expedition leaders and their ship's doctor were in their early 30s. ...

The rescue was made in Antarctic Sound -- which is about a two- to three-hour sail southeast from the South Shetland Islands. Our Captain steamed back to the South Shetland Islands as there are both Chilean and Russian scientific stations on King George Island. There is an airstrip there, and facilities that will accommodate the offloading of the MS Explorer voyagers. ...

Difficult weather conditions

When we arrived at Maxwell Bay at 1330 -- the weather had really deteriorated. We have 40 knot winds, and driving snow -- which stings the eyes. The logistics to be worked out must have been enormous. Where to put up the MS Explorer passengers? How to feed them off the boat? How to pick them up and transport them away from the Antarctic? Where to take them? How to get them home? Who will pay for all of this?

At 1415 Fredericke announced to us that humpback whales were breaching on the starboard side. Much picture taking outside in the gathering storm.

By 1630 the gale has reached maximum strength -- it is hard to walk on deck. The snow has formed icy patches - and we tread carefully. The Captain runs the engines in forward at 0.5 - 1.0 knots, also using the bow thrusters to keep our ship in the same position. We are only 50 feet from a large blue white iceberg -- heading straight into the wind.

The decision is made to offload the passengers. Each person will be fully dressed for warmth, and will wear their own survival gear plus our ship's survival suits. Only eight persons at a time will be taken by Polar Cirkel boats to the landing -- where we will then need our survival suits for the next batch.

It takes until 2030 to complete the offloading. We say goodbye to each boatload -- and talk to them throughout the afternoon. The weather station gets too busy -- and there is a lull in the offloading at dinner time. Our rescue crew must be cold and exhausted -- and they need a break too.

By the time the operation is completed -- the front has mostly passed, and winds are only about 20 - 25 knots. The MS Explorer passengers are now safe -- they will get home some time -- and no one died.

Our Captain heads the MS Nordnorge back to sea -- and we steam to our next destination.

What will happen next?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good that all people got saved. Just curious: What happened to the Zodiacs? Were they left behind (wasting the antarctic)?