March 23, 2019 / 3:33 PM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 7-Passengers airlifted from crippled cruise ship in storm off Norway

* Some 1,373 people on board, of which 915 passengers

* Eight people injured

* Passengers evacuated by helicopter (Updates number of people, evacuation numbers, injuries, adds company comment)

By Terje Solsvik and Gwladys Fouche

OSLO, March 23 (Reuters) - Rescue helicopters evacuated more than 150 people from a luxury cruise ship which suffered engine failure on Saturday in stormy weather off the west coast of Norway, police and rescue workers said.

The maritime rescue service said the Viking Sky, with 1,373 passengers and crew on board, had sent out a mayday signal as it had been drifting towards land in the Norwegian Sea.

The ship was carrying 915 passengers, of which "a large number" were from the United States and Britain, the rescue service said, although it declined to be more specific.

The crew was able to restart one of the ship's four engines and the vessel was at anchor about 2 km (1.24 miles) from land and the passengers were considered safe although the evacuation was set to continue throughout the night.

Some 155 people had been evacuated by 2140 GMT, rescue service spokesman Per Fjeld said.

The sea was very rough and eight of those pulled from the ship had suffered injuries, with three of those considered severe, public broadcaster NRK reported, quoting unnamed sources.

Passengers were hoisted one-by-one from the deck of the vessel and airlifted to a village just north of the town of Molde on Norway's west coast.

Cruise passengers described the moment when the ship's engines stopped, and the evacuation that followed.

"We were having lunch when it began to shake. Window panes were broken and water came in. It was just chaos. The trip on the helicopter, I would rather forget. It was not fun," American passenger John Curry told public broadcaster NRK.

Images and film posted by passengers on social media showed furniture sliding around as the vessel drifted in waves of up to eight metres (26 feet).

"Our first priority was for the safety and wellbeing of our passengers and our crew, and in close cooperation with the Norwegian Coast Guard, the captain decided to evacuate all guests from the vessel by helicopter," Viking Cruises said in a statement to Reuters.

"The evacuation is proceeding with all necessary caution," the company added. "Guests are being accommodated in local hotels when they arrive back on shore, and Viking will arrange for return flights for all guests."

A second vessel, a freighter with a crew of nine, was also being evacuated nearby after suffering engine failure, diverting helicopters and thus delaying the cruise ship airlift, the rescue centre added.

Two purpose-built vessels operated by the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue had been forced to turn back due to the severe weather, the service said.

The wind was blowing at 24 metres per second (86 kph/54 mph), according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, and the storm was expected to last at least until midnight local time (2300 GMT).

The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs.

Norway is considering safety improvements for those travelling along its extensive coastline, including preliminary plans for a giant ocean tunnel through a mountain near the spot where the Viking Sky had halted.

Built in 2017, the ship belongs to Viking Ocean Cruises, part of the Viking Cruises group founded by Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen.

Several vessels and four helicopters took part in the rescue and facilities to receive passengers have been set up on land, the rescue service said.

All search and rescue teams in the region are mobilising, including 60 volunteers from the Norwegian Red Cross, a spokesman said. (Additional reporting by Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Sandra Maler)

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