Almost a thousand passengers and crew, some wearing pajamas, took to lifeboats when a Soviet cruise ship hit an iceberg early today but a Norwegian rescue vessel saved them all after plowing through ice three miles wide and eight feet thick.
"It was a very successful rescue operation. Nobody at all of the 611 passengers and 379 crew was injured," said Leif Eldring, governor of the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitzbergen, to which passengers were evacuated.
Some described hearing a loud bang and a scraping sound as the 25,000-ton Maxim Gorky hit the iceberg in foggy conditions in the Greenland Sea north of Norway shortly after midnight. Then, sirens sounded.
'A Bit Hectic'
"After the sirens went off, it was a bit hectic. We were told by crew to come on deck and put on life jackets. It was cold and raining heavily," West German passenger Marianne Finne said.
Holed in two places, the liner began listing toward its bow. Hundreds of bewildered passengers, most of them West Germans, were hustled into lifeboats and lowered into the water.
"My lifeboat kept hitting against the side of the ship. People were very frightened and there was ice everywhere," said Brigitte Fruhwald, 52, from Munich.
"The crew thought the lifeboat was damaged and about 90 of us left the boat and climbed on the ice itself where we waited for about an hour," she said.
The temperature was just above the freezing mark.
Norwegian helicopters and the coast guard vessel Senja were quickly on the scene.
'Slowed Us Up'
"We had to break though a belt of ice three nautical miles wide and (eight feet) thick, which slowed us up before reaching the Maxim Gorky," said Sigurd Kleiven, an officer aboard the Senja.
Adolf Kuhn, 73, described how his lifeboat was left hanging over the side of the ship for two hours, suspended in mid-air because there was too much ice to launch it.
"Finally we were launched but there were major shortcomings with the lifeboats. There was only a lot of alcohol and no drinking water," he said.
Passengers with heart problems and other medical conditions were taken by helicopter to Spitzbergen. Eldring said he saw frightened women wearing only nightgowns and fur coats arrive on the island, where they were immediately taken to a medical center.
Pumps Flown In
The Senja eventually took 500 passengers and 181 crew off the liner. Other crew members operated pumps flown in by helicopter in an effort to keep the Maxim Gorky afloat.
"They are trying to plug the holes with cement. The captain believes it will be possible to repair the ship," Eldring said.
The collision was the latest in a line of Soviet shipping accidents in the 1980s.
The liner Admiral Nakhimov sank in the Black Sea in August, 1986, after a collision officially blamed on negligence. The accident cost 389 lives.
Most recently, the cruise liner Priamurye caught fire in the Japanese port of Osaka in May last year, killing 11 passengers.