Soviet Cruise Ship Sinks, Sailor Missing
Feb. 17, 1986
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ A Soviet cruise ship carrying more than 700 passengers and crew struck rocks and sank in stormy seas Sunday, but only one person, a Soviet sailor, is missing and presumed drowned, officials reported.
Chief Police Inspector Owen Dowse, in a mid-morning announcement Monday on Radio New Zealand, said one crewman was missing but all of the others aboard the 20,000-ton Mikhail Lermontov had been rescued. Initial reports had said 34 people were not accounted for.
The passengers, many of them elderly Australians and New Zealanders, were taken from lifeboats aboard rescue craft and brought to Wellington, 35 miles across Cook Strait from Port Gore where the liner sank.
Ten people were hospitalized with minor injuries, Dowse said.
Search coordinator Barry James said the Mikhail Lermontov had about 400 passengers and some 300 Soviet crew members.
But the chairman of the Marlborough Harbor Board, Bruno Deliessi, said the ship carried a total of 841 passengers and crew.
Deliessi also said there had been 25 children aboard, but Les Goss, the cruise manager, said there were none.
Survivors said in Wellington that passengers and crew members began fleeing the liner in lifeboats about 1 1/2 hours after it started taking on water and hours before it sank just before 11 p.m. Sunday.
Efforts to rescue the people from the lifeboats were hampered by darkness, driving rain and 15 mph winds. A New Zealand air force reconnaissance plane and helicopter and police and navy patrol boats resumed the search for survivors Monday.
Dowse said the evacuation was orderly and he was told by a Soviet crew member that no one was left on aboard after the order to abandon ship was given.
Musician Ken Tweddle, one of 10 Australians in the crew, said on arrival in Wellington that everyone was safely evacuated.
''We got everybody off,'' he said. ''When I left there was hardly anybody left. There was no one in the sea. Everyone got into lifeboats or tenders.''
About two dozen small boats searched for survivors after dawn and an aerial search was conducted by a New Zealand air force reconnaissance aircraft, two helicopters and a light plane equipped with floats.
Rescue teams had recovered 11 empty liferafts, Radio New Zealand said.
New Zealand Transport Minister Richard Prebble announced in Parliament there will be a preliminary inquiry into the sinking.
The 580-foot Mikhail Lermontov, registered in Leningrad, spends the winter cruising between Australia and the South Pacific islands, with stops in New Zealand.
It left Picton on New Zealand's South Island Sunday morning and was heading north in the scenic Marlborough Sounds area when it struck rocks, knocking a hole in the hull and disabling the engines, according to the New Zealand Search and Rescue Service.
The liner, with a 12-degree list, drifted into harbor at Port Gore. The captain tried to beach it there, but rescue officials said the ship drifted back off shore and sank in about 100 feet of water.
By Monday morning, the storm had cleared and Radio New Zealand reported that the Port Gore coast was awash with debris and oil.
Rescue officials said an oil tanker, the Tarahiko, brought 355 people to Wellington, where they were put up in hotels and private homes. A ferry, the Arahura, brought 310 more people to Wellington, and one person was rescued by a navy patrol boat.
Some elderly women wept with relief as they were wrapped in blankets and given cups of coffee by rescue workers at the Wellington terminal.
Two passengers, John and Phyllis Madden of Sydney, said people were calm during the evacuation but that many of the older passengers had trouble climbing down rope ladders to the lifeboats.
Goss, New Zealand manager of the Charter Travel Co., which organized the cruise, was quoted by the Dominion as saying there were no children aboard, but Deliessie said there were 25.
There was no immediate comment from the Soviet Embassy.
The Mikhail Lermontov, named for a Russian writer, left Sydney on Feb. 7 and stopped at Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington.
Radio New Zealand said the Picton harbor master, Capt. Don Jamieson, came aboard ship as pilot at Picton for the return journey to Sydney, which was to include a stop at the Fiordland National Park on the South Island's southwestern coast.
When it hit rocks, the ship was about to enter Cook Strait, which separates the two main islands of New Zealand and is renowned for its unreliable weather, fierce winds and strong currents.