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Soviet Ship Moving Too Fast When It Rammed Iceberg

June 21, 1989

OSLO, Norway (AP) _ Norwegians involved in the rescue of hundreds of passengers from a Soviet liner said on Wednesday that it was going too fast for safety when it rammed into an iceberg and took on water in arctic seas.

The head of the medical team aboard a Norwegian rescue ship said some of the Soviet crew were drunk at the time. Others involved in the rescue contradicted him.

Ships and helicopters took the 575 passengers, all but a dozen West Germans, to shelter on Spitzbergen Island. They were flown Wednesday to Dusseldorf, West Germany, cutting short their pleasure cruise to the land of the midnight sun.

About half the 378 Soviet crewmen stayed on board to nurse the Maxim Gorky to harbor.

The disabled 25,000-ton vessel was limping under its own power in the Norwegian Sea toward Spitzbergen, about 180 miles east of the accident, Norwegian defense officials said.

Dr. Mads Gilbert, aboard the coast guard cutter Senja when it broke through thick ice to rescue the people, said ″our impression was that some of the crew were intoxicated.″

″We were suprised at the extent of intoxication,″ Gilbert told state radio. He said many crew members were too drunk to help operate pumps 12 hours after the accident.

Rescued passengers, some of whom spent seven hours in lifeboats at near- freezing temperatures, said they had been offered whiskey and vodka during the ordeal to ward off the cold.

″The German passengers had nothing but praise for the Soviet crew and said nothing about drunken crewmen,″ said Spitzbergen Gov. Leif Eldring, who met arriving passengers early Wednesday.

″If the crew had been drunk, the Maxim Gorky would have sunk,″ said a Soviet Embassy official in Oslo, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Maritime experts said the ship was moving at 21 mph when it struck the ice, much faster than it should have sailed in treacherous waters.

″I would hardly have sailed faster than two to three knots in such ice- clogged water,″ said Sigurd Kleiven, captain of the Senja.

Guttorm Jacobsen, a skipper who has sailed the arctic for 40 years, told the Verdens Gang newspaper agreed, saying: ″The Maxim Gorky must have been too eager to keep its schedule.″

The collision tore a gash 20 feet long and four to six inches wide in the bow. The ship took on 18,000 tons of water and was listing badly when the passengers scrambled into lifeboats.

For West German passenger Giesela Rillinger, ″It was six hours of nothing but ice floes and the sky. If a storm had come up it would have been all over for us. Six hours of facing death.″

Passenger Maria Sontheimer, 71, also interviewed in Dusseldorf, said most people were seasick and ″the waves bounced us against each other.″

Some left the rafts and climbed onto ice floes for fear of being crushed between drifting blocks of ice.

″We stood on the ice and all around us, it cracked and crashed together. One had that feeling that if you turned around those standing behind you would disappear,″ said Lutheran minister Horst Drosihn.

The NRK report said a lifeboat with 50 elderly passengers got stuck as it was being lowered into the water and dangled for four hours halfway down Maxim Gorky’s side.

The Soviet news agency Tass said sailors plugged the holes in the bow. It would receive emergency repairs on Spitzbergen, Tass said.

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