Winslow Umberger knew something was wrong when the horizon disappeared.
Umberger, 66, and her husband Charles were enjoying a leisurely lunch onboard the Viking Sky, a luxury cruiseliner making its way south along the Norweigan coast. There had been some turbulence, sure, but as a ship captain’s daughter, Umberger didn’t think much of it until an enormous wave sent the contents of the kitchen flying in a thunderous crash.
The waitstaff scurried around “like sandpipers” trying to collect the debris, Umberger said. It was almost comical until the captain’s first “mayday” sounded over the intercom. The ship rose and fell on swells so high that Umberger couldn’t see the horizon.
“It’s kind of surreal — you take these drills on boats, but you don’t ever expect to put those life jackets back on.”
Three Asheville, North Carolina, couples — Winslow and Charles Umberger, Elaine and Buster Barkus and another local couple — were all aboard the cruiseliner the Viking Sky when its engines failed and most passengers were forced to evacuate on March 23.
Umberger said nearly a thousand passengers, many of them quite elderly, worked to make their way to their assigned emergency muster stations as the ship rocked with violent waves. “Everything is flying. There’s glass flying, there’s furniture upended, (passengers) trying to weave their way back.”
The Umbergers reported to their muster station — a windowless theater on the second floor of the ship, below the waterline. Winslow found this disquieting, especially when the captain announced that the water doors had been sealed. There had been a breach.
But the Umbergers and their muster mates were the lucky ones, she said — another Asheville couple, Elaine and Buster Barkus, had been assigned to the other major muster point in the ship’s dining facility — where the breach occurred.
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Pinned down by Arctic water
Bruce Barkus said the couple isn’t yet ready to discuss their harrowing experience — “It’s all still too raw,” Barkus said over the phone. But he gave permission to cruise companion Winslow Umberger to provide an outline of what the Barkuses lived through, according to conversations they shared about the experience.
The ship was battered by 19-25 foot swells, which the passengers in the restaurant muster could see all too clearly through the panoramic plexiglass windows. Between the torque of the ship attempting to steer, the waves, and brutal 40-50 mile-per-hour winds, three window panels popped out of place and a door was wrenched open at a severe angle.
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A wall of Arctic water washed in, and Elaine Barkus was thrown about 20 feet and pinned to the floor by the sheer weight of the water, Umberger said. Bruce was able to swim down to his wife and drag her up to the surface for air. Broken glass and furniture swirled in the water and some passengers were sucked into the ocean as the wave receded, battered by dining room tables and chairs.
Retreat and rescue
The Barkuses and the other drenched passengers in the restaurant muster were quickly evacuated to the lower muster point to await evacuation by helicopter. Umberger said the elderly and injured (among them a man who suffered a heart attack right as the waves started) were airlifted out first, along with the group that had been swept away by waves in the restaurant.
Passengers were afraid to board the helicopters, Umberger said, explaining that the cruise’s demographic tilted older and the still-punishing winds didn’t inspire confidence. “These were 90-year-old people, 84 year old,” Umberger said. “Apparently they took you in the harness and a guy in the helicopter winched you up — and you were up in the bay before you could scream. But of course, people did scream.”
Battening the hatches
Airlifts continued from about 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. the following morning, Umberger estimates, with hundreds hunkered down in the theater muster. Young and “remarkably composed” staff brought passengers “any food they could forage” — a handful of oranges, bottles of water for passengers to share — and did what they could to tamp down the urine and feces overflowing from the bathrooms nearby. Ship doctors rushed to assemble lists of prescriptions each passenger needed so staff could venture up to the cabins to collect them.
As the squall broke, two tugboats were finally able to steady the ship. The danger had passed, but there were still around 500 passengers aboard the trashed cruiseliner. The tugboats began the haul to the small Norweigan port city of Molde, where the ship was received by what seemed like “the entire town” gathered on the docks.
“They were crying, shouting ‘I love you.’ We couldn’t believe it. That moment was the highlight of our trip.”
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“If you have to have a disaster, have it with Viking”
Umberger said she can’t over-emphasize the professionalism, composure, and “superhuman effort” the Viking staff maintained during the accident.
To Umberger’s astonishment, as the ship was being towed to Molde, Viking staff served the passengers in the theater a mid-morning meal — and even honored the original dietary requirements. Umberger said she was delighted with her vegetarian meal, “a hot weird mess of french fries, broccoli, cauliflower and mashed potatoes.”
The Viking crew members, who by this point Umberger assumed must have been awake for around 36 hours, cleared the passages of glass and managed to provide turn-down service to the cabins. Passengers were given the option to stay aboard with their belongings or go ashore to a hotel. The staff announced dinner would be served at 5:30 p.m.
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Suddenly, it was like any other day on the ship, she said. “It was an elegant hotel again. There was china, and linen, and salt shakers… everything! Nothing was missed.”
Umberger said one of the most surreal moments of her life was when they arrived at the nightly show the day after the chaos of the accident. “There were champagne pyramids, the waitstaff looking spiffy and carrying trays of bubbly.”
The captain was received to great applause, and the passengers gave senior officers a standing ovation. The CEO of Viking had even flown in to address the remaining passengers. “If you’re going to have a disaster, just make sure it’s with Viking,” Umberger said.
Umberger acknowledged that her experience in the theater muster point was the “best-case scenario” and pales in comparison to what happened to couples like the Burkes. But still, Umberger doesn’t appreciate the media’s negative casting of Viking.
“If one or two people made a bad decision (that caused the accident), there were over 400 other Viking employees that made the best of a bad situation,” Umberger said. “And I don’t like to see them bashed.”
Umberger said that she and her husband received full refunds, including airfare, from Viking Ocean Cruises on March 27, just four days after the crash.
She added that passengers may also receive vouchers for another Viking trip — and given her “incredible week” cruising before the accident and the “equally incredible” behavior of Viking staff under pressure, she said she’d be delighted to sail with Viking again.
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