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Search Halted Off Norway’s Coast

November 27, 1999

OSLO, Norway (AP) _ At first, passengers on the night ferry heard a bang and waited for the crew to tell them what was going on. About 45 minutes later, frigid water began gushing on board of the slick catamaran, and panic spread.

Survivors who plunged into the frigid ocean when the high-speed, ultramodern Sleipner sank Friday along Norway’s western coast told of terror, chaos and a fight for their lives in an accident that killed 20 people.

Christian Hamre, 28, said a young girl screamed when a panicked old man with no life vest grabbed hold of her for support.

``He held onto us for a long time. Suddenly a girl shouted, `He’s pulling me down!‴ Hamre was quoted as telling the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet. ``We had to tear the man’s hands away, and then we lost sight of him.″

The cause of the disaster was under investigation.

The ferry, with 80 passengers and nine crew members, ran aground about a mile from shore on its regular 90-mile run from Stavanger to Bergen.

Eleven bodies were recovered quickly. Nine others were missing and presumed dead when the search was called off Saturday evening nearly 24 hours later.

``The rescue leaders now see no hope for finding more survivors. It is cold. There are large waves,″ said Elbjoerg Vaage of the Norwegian Rescue Coordination Center at Sola.

Twenty-three victims were hospitalized, one in critical condition. No names or nationalities were publicly disclosed in one of the worst such accidents in Norway since World War II.

The 138-foot Sleipner went down quickly. Passengers dove or fell into the water faster than life rafts could be deployed.

Passenger Haavard Rossland, 19, said he watched from the water as the ship’s stern tilted into the air and then slid below the waves.

``It was like the film `Titanic,‴ he said. ``I saw the Titanic before me.″

Some strangers clung to each other for support, while others struggled to survive in water littered with life vests and up to 20-foot waves turned to foam by gale force winds.

``I clung to a girl in the water. Soon a third person came drifting by. We hung onto each other until a rescue boat found us,″ 21-year-old Bjorn Andre Helle was quoted as telling Norway’s largest newspaper, Verdens Gang.

He survived 25 minutes overboard, just short of the 30-minute maximum medical experts said most people could live in the 48-degree water and heavy seas.

The Sleipner, put into service in August, set off at about 6:30 p.m. Friday on what should have been a routine trip. The vessel was equipped with the latest navigation and rescue gear.

The trip abruptly ended off the island of Boemlo, about 25 miles to the north and 250 miles west of Oslo.

At 7:08 p.m., the ship radioed Norway’s rescue center that it had run aground and that ``things are somewhat critical.″ Passengers said they heard a bang, but that the situation did not seem serious.

For the next 45 minutes, things moved slowly. News reports said it took nine minutes before the regional medical emergency center was alerted. The nearby county hospital didn’t go on alert for almost 45 minutes, Verdens Gang reported.

Survivors complained that they got little information from the Sleipner crew, according to Emil Mohr, a doctor at the Haugesund County Hospital, who talked to many of them.

``There wasn’t panic before the sinking, but there was a lot of uncertainty,″ he said.

At about 7:35 p.m., Sleipner radioed that it had slid off the rocks. Rossland, one of the survivors, said it felt like the vessel pulled off under its own power.

Fifteen minutes later, the Askita, one of the many vessels and helicopters that raced to the scene, radioed, ``Sleipner is gone.″ Survivors said panic spread as cold water gushed into the doomed vessel.

``Everything happened in two or three minutes,″ 28-year-old Anne Kristine Dalseg was quoted as telling the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet. ``The boat capsized. There was panic and pushing out on the overcrowded sundeck. Suddenly the boat went over, and I was fighting for my life in the ice-cold, dark water. ... I was suddenly alone.″

She and four others clung together for about 20 minutes, until help arrived.

Kjell Eidesvik, a crewman aboard the ferry Strandabarm, said he will always remember the ones he could not help. He and fellow crewmen had nearly gained control of a life raft when a huge wave swept it and two women away into the darkness.

``They shouted for help,″ he said. ``That is absolutely my strongest impression of this night. The screams of those two women.″

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