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By Yuliya Talmazan and Shamar Walters
Hundreds of passengers survived a harrowing rescue operation after their luxury cruise liner experienced engine failure in stormy waters off the west coast of Norway.
Viking Sky, which was carrying 1,373 people on board, sent out a mayday signal Saturday afternoon as it had been drifting toward land in the Norwegian Sea, prompting the captain to order an evacuation.
Passengers had to be rescued one-by-one from the deck of the vessel and airlifted to a village just north of the nearby town of Molde.
American passenger Rodney Horgen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK he was evacuated off the ship by a helicopter. “It was like an angel just bringing us to safety,” he said.
But Horgen said it was heart-wrenching to see hundreds of others still waiting to be rescued.
“The worst thing I could say for me was walking to get in line for the helicopter,” Horgen told NRK, overcome by emotion. “You had to walk past a lot of people and their faces. That was hard — I did not want to go.”
Stormy conditions in the area persisted Sunday, but with three out of four engines up and running again, the ship was being towed toward land and calmer waters.
Norwegian authorities said they had the situation under control and helicopter evacuations had been suspended.
The cruise company said 479 passengers have been taken off the ship — 20 have been taken to hospital with fractures and cuts, but some are also suffering from trauma.
Over 400 passengers remained on board, with a crew of 458.
The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs.
Passengers from the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, posted images and videos detailing hours spent aboard the drifting ship on social media. Some showed furniture sliding around as the vessel drifted in waves of up to 26 feet.
Passengers NBC News spoke with said many were injured by falling objects and shattered glass as the ship was rocked by the waves.
Anne Decker from Rye, New Hampshire, told NBC News on the phone Sunday that she and her friend were inside a muster station, an area where passengers are directed to assemble in case of an emergency, when a big wave hit and broke a window, allowing water to rush in.
“I think it pushed open…and my friend and I and a lot of other people were completely underwater for a minute. I mean underwater and we thought that was it,” Decker said, adding that the entire ordeal had been a terrifying experience.
“It was surreal,” Decker’s friend Deborah Kellett, who was with her, said. “It was like what you see in the movies and I honestly thought when we went under water, we were going to be dragged off the boat when the waves went through the window.”
The women were still on the ship when they spoke with NBC News. “I don’t think any of us are going to feel safe until we get our feet on firm ground,” Kellett said.
Built in 2017, the ship belongs to Viking Ocean Cruises, part of the Viking Cruises group founded by Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen.
“They’ve had a bit of a shocking experience,” Hagen told Norwegian TV2 and other media after meeting passengers.
“Most of our passengers are senior citizens… imagine what it’s like to hang there on that wire. It must be a terrible experience but they seem to have handled it very well,” Hagen said.
The company said passengers are being accommodated in local hotels and their return flights will be arranged.