South Africa has had it own “miracle rescue” – almost 27 years ago, 571 people were brought safely to shore from the sinking cruise liner Oceanos, in what has been described as the greatest maritime rescue in modern history.
The Oceanos set out from East London, heading for Durban, on August 3, 1991, and quickly ran into seas so rough that it was nearly impossible to serve food during the evening dinner service.
At approximately 9.30pm, a 10cm leak in the 38-year-old ship’s hull led to water flooding into the engine room and generator room.
It was reported that the ship’s crew abandoned standard procedure and apparently fled when they realised the ship was doomed to sink.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing the captain and crew packed and ready to depart, even before informing the passengers of the emergency. Crew members were reportedly also seen jumping into life boats before passengers – and launching the boats only half-full.
This led to the ship running out of life boats with more than 200 passengers still on board.
Sixteen helicopters from the South African Navy and Air Force were dispatched and during a seven-hour operation they managed to airlift 225 passengers from the ship and drop them off at nearby settlements in the Eastern Cape.
According to a report in the Sunday Tribune, the helicopters were unable to land on the badly listing ship so a navy seaman, Paul Whiley, was lowered to the deck wearing a harness. Due to the howling winds, he was badly knocked around and suffered a cut to the face, but still managed to orchestrate the loading of passengers into harnesses, two by two.
These included the ship’s disgraced captain Yiannis Avranas, who abandoned ship before many women and children, leaving Whiley and one of the entertainers, Moss Hills, to ensure the rest of the passengers were safe.
Whiley also had to jump into the roaring ocean during the rescue after one of the passengers slipped out of his harness and into the water. He rescued the man.
Two other dramatic rescue operations around the world:
- Copiapo, Chile, 2010. The plight of 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine 600m underground after a rock collapse on August 5, 2010 captured international headlines.The men had been virtually given up for dead when a probe sent down through a narrow borehole struck lucky, 17 days later. The men had been surviving on dwindling rations, with just 15 cans of tuna between them, said survivor Franklin Lobos.
- Gramat, France, 1999. On November 22, 1999, rescuers reached seven men trapped in a cave system in France for 10 days. The men became trapped in the caves at Vitarelles when heavy storms caused flooding, cutting them off from the exits. The unprecedented rescue mission riveted France. They eventually reached them after squeezing into one of the shafts and following an underground river. – AFP