At its first Working Group meeting during the Icelandic Chairmanship, the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group held a workshop on the VIKING SKY incident – a cruise liner that got into distress off the Southern Norwegian coast. Authorities involved in the rescue operation in March 2019 shared their experiences and lessons learned with EPPR delegates. Quickly the questions arose: How would this incident have played out in the high Arctic?
It appeared to be a calm and easy day on watch for the two people in the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) of Southern Norway on Saturday, 23 March 2019. As the duty team changed at 13:35, nobody expected that a 19-hour long rescue operation was about to get underway. Yet, as the personnel settled into its shift, the cruise vessel VIKING SKY suddenly lost power in rough waves, unable to restart any of its four engines. The ship lay adrift in Hustadvika, an area known for its shallow waters and breaking sea. The wind was strong and pushed the cruise liner southeast towards land.
At 14:00 the VIKING SKY called mayday. Recognizing the scale of the incident, the JRCC duty team within one hour alerted all available resources and agencies that needed to be involved in the rescue operation: police and emergency services, the Norwegian Coastal Administration, military headquarters, the company owning the cruise liner, and volunteers. “It was clear at an early stage that there were more than 1370 passengers and crew members on board the vessel and this could turn into a mass rescue operation. The VIKING SKY was close to shore, it had no propulsion, so we alerted all resources that we knew would be engaged in this type of operation”, says Owe Frøland, Rescue Coordination Center controller at the JRCC South Norway. He was called on duty late in the evening as the incident with VIKING SKY proceeded.
The high seas prevented an evacuation of passengers and crew members by rescue boats and life rafts, leaving helicopter evacuation as the only remaining option for the rescue operation. Up to six helicopters shuttled passengers from the cruise liner to the reception center established on land – three national rescue helicopters and three from the regional off-shore industry. Together, the mission completed 30 loads in 18 hours, airlifting almost 500 people, making it the largest public-private helicopter rescue in Norwegian history.
“We were just minutes away from the catastrophic event. Had the blackout happened a minute later, the cruise liner would likely have hit the ground”, states Owe Frøland. While circumstances prevented a worst-case scenario, good cooperation across agencies ensured an efficient rescue operation on the ground and in the air. According to Frøland, it went as efficiently as possible: “The first helicopter evacuation started approximately one hour after the mayday. And the reception center was fully established within one hour and forty minutes, but ready to receive passengers within one hour.”
Frøland emphasized the role of volunteers, referring to them as the “backbone” in the Norwegian emergency response system. More than 300 voluntary helpers from the Norwegian Red Cross and other organizations were on the spot within hours – and more people and resources arrived as the incident proceeded. They have been trained for emergencies like this and independently were able to set up a reception center to welcome evacuated passengers.
Hustadvika is nested in between the two cities Kristiansund and Molde, both around 50 kilometers away; and with the off-shore industry operational in the region, resources such as search and rescue helicopters were easily made available. The question thus quickly arises: What would this incident have looked like, if it had happened in the Arctic?
“That is very difficult to predict of course. Transport would be a real challenge. If you don’t have the infrastructure, you don’t have the possibility to handle all the passengers and bring them to shore”, says Ole Kristian Bjerkemo from the Norwegian Coastal Administration, Vice Chair of the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group.
“If it had been in Svalbard with these weather conditions, it would have been much more critical because we might have had difficulties in bringing more helicopters into the area. I would believe that the reception part of the operation would function quite well. It would be the same type of organization as it would be on the mainland”, states Owe Frøland.
As the sea ice retreats, cruise ships venture further into the high North, away from well-established settlements with search and rescue capacities. “An operation like this would be difficult even in the Northern part of mainland Norway. We would have needed to consider using airliners to fly volunteers into the local area in order to handle this sort of mass evacuation”, Frøland explains. The situation looks similar in many places of the Arctic, in which cruise tourism is increasing. In extensive areas of Greenland, Northern Canada, Russia or Alaska large venues that could function as reception centers are the exception; blankets, volunteers and trained people a scarce resource.
Despite the more favorable rescue conditions available in Southern Norway, the VIKING SKY incident holds valuable insights for possible emergencies in the Arctic – and for the Arctic Council’s Working Group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR). “It is important for EPPR to look at all kind of incidents to see what the lessons learned are and how things are organized in different countries. The challenges in the Arctic are of course the distances, the remoteness. But knowing what your neighbors’ resources are and how they respond to incidents lays the foundation for better cooperation”, states Johan Marius Ly, Director of Emergency Response in the Norwegian Coastal Administration.
EPPR is responsible for maintaining the operational guidelines of the MOSPA Agreement and ensuring implementation of the SAR Agreement, both of which are legally binding agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council and regularly simulates incidents that exercise the worst case scenarios – improving emergency preparedness and response. “In many emergencies you will have challenges with response time, getting enough resources at the site. But the key is to have trained people to deal with the incidents”, says Johan Marius Ly.
The VIKING SKY incident illustrated the challenges that arise when a large cruise liner is in distress. “It puts everything into reality,” an EPPR delegate stated during the after action discussion. For the Working Group the incident is a reminder of how crucial international cooperation and regular exercises are, and how much Arctic States can benefit from sharing best practices and resources.
The EPPR Chair, Peter Holst-Andersen, does not hesitate calling the VIKING SKY incident a warning about what to expect in the Arctic. “The incident with VIKING SKY was somehow a ‘best case scenario’. It happened in a densely populated area with a lot of rescue capabilities relatively close to the ship. Had a similar disaster happened in most other places in the Arctic the result would most likely have been catastrophic.”, he argues. “No one would have had sufficient resources to react so effectively and promptly in the high North. This is why it is so extremely important that we work and cooperate cross-state on these issues. And there is still room for improvement”, says Peter Holst-Andersen.