Heroic Rescue Effort Saves 571
By PA3 Howard J. Holmes
The ship wavered as 80-plus mile per hour winds and 24-foot waves slammed into it, driving it ward the South African shore. Hundreds of people gathered to the top decks of the disabled passenger ship Oceanos, as the hurricane force winds dictated its course.
The first distress signal from he Oceanos was received at 11:16 p.m. (South African time) by Cape Town Radio, South Africa. The station relayed the signal to the Southern Air Command at Silvermine, Cape Town, which almost immediately activated the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (RCC).
The message stated that the Oceanos' engine room was flooded and the vessel was adrift about 80 nautical miles northeast of East London, about two miles off the South African shore; an area known as the "Wild Coast."
Search and rescue operations began immediately. A Navy warning broadcast requested all nearby vessels to proceed to the Oceanos' location. The South African Air Force deployed 16 aircraft with a Mobile Air Operations Team. The South African Navy immediately deployed four strike craft and 31 divers.
A temporary helicopter base was set up in Coffee Bay (on the Transkei Coast), where survivors could be off loaded and treated. By 10:00 a.m. , Durban, South Africa, established and maintained communications with the Oceanos. After the ship's captain and radio officer abandoned ship, a passenger took control of the radio and informed Durban that two life-boats, filled with survivors, were launched and there was difficulty in launching the remaining boats.
Weather conditions aside, the biggest obstacle, during initial rescue efforts, was the distance rescue aircraft needed to travel before arriving on-scene. A C-160 aircraft arrived in the area at 6:00 a.m., but was limited in operations because of darkness. By 6:15, the first merchant vessels arrived and began pulling survivors from life-boats. Shortly thereafter, helicopters arrived and started hoisting survivors from the Oceanos' decks.
Heavy swells, and force six winds, kept the merchant vessels from getting close enough to assist stranded victims. Because the Oceanos had a 30-degree list, its helicopter deck was unusable. The disable ship continued to take on water at an alarming rate as 225 passengers remained on-board. Because of the helicopters limitations, survivors could only be hoisted two-at-a-time; drastically slowing rescue progress. One person being hoisted slipped out of the hoist and fell into the tumultuous sea; however, a diver witnessing the event dove in and saved the person.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation requested small craft to assist in searching the area between the Oceanos and the shoreline. The National Sea Rescue Institute, a part time volunteer organization, executed this operation. C-130 crew members dropped life rafts and smoke markers, by hand, from the plane's cargo ramps.
Prior to the Oceanon sinking, divers swept through the vessel to check for passengers still aboard. Upon the sinking of the Oceanos all 220 persons originally stranded on the decks of the ship were accounted for. However, 15 passengers remained missing. Because of the heroic efforts of all responding parties; all 571 of the Oceanos' crew and passengers were saved, the 15 missing were picked up by merchant ships.
Though no loss of life occurred, rescue efforts were hampered in several ways. According tot he Defense Office, Embassy of South Africa, the following hindrances in rescue capabilities, that if not overcome, could have led to catastrophic results:
- Lack of specialized maritime "on-scene" search and rescue aircraft. This hampered the ability to deliver survival equipment to endangered victims.
- Limited links to international search and rescue organizations, and limited ability of photography and communications hampered coordination. This made the search for individuals washed from the scene less than effective.
- Lack of suitable search and rescue helicopters: This was highlighted in the ability to hoist only tow survivors at a time.
- Lack of suitable naval vessels for search and rescue. This has been a problem since the South African Navy was forced to retire its last remaining Frigates.
Photo credit: shipspotting.com