Rodney Horgen frantically tried to grab his wife as a massive wall of water crashed into their crippled Norwegian cruise ship.
He counted 20 or more people riding the rapid water, along with chairs and tables: “I tried to grab her, but I just couldn’t.”
She whooshed by twice more on the rollicking ship before he was able to catch her.
Hours later, the couple from the tiny town of Deer River, Minn., were among several hundred passengers rescued from the Viking Sky and hoisted one by one to a helicopter.
“They looked like an angel coming to get ya,” Horgen said Sunday, recalling when he saw the rescue crew lower the harness to him.
Horgen, 62, and his wife, Judy Lemieux, 66, were on a pilgrimage to Horgen’s ancestral homeland aboard the Viking Sky, which left Bergen, Norway, on March 14 and was scheduled to arrive Tuesday on the River Thames in southeastern England.
It was carrying 1,373 passengers and crew when engine trouble struck in an unpredictable area of the Norwegian coast known for rough and frigid waters.
‘Mayday’ in English
The crew issued a mayday call Saturday afternoon, and the ordeal that swung from calm to terror was on.
“The swells were hitting us broadside, just leaning the ship back and forth, almost to the point we thought it was going to tip,” Horgen said, recalling the scene in the seventh-floor restaurant early in the afternoon. “People were getting tipped over in their chairs” amid breaking dishes and glass.
Once the rocking motion eased a bit, everyone was ordered to their rooms before the captain announced an occasional “mayday” in English that the ship needed to be evacuated.
All the tumult left at least 20 people injured, according to Viking Ocean Cruises, the company that owns and operates the ship.
Horgen escaped injury, as did Lemieux, even though she had been tossed about in the frigid seawater that swept onto the ship.
Horgen choked up a bit as he described his most difficult moment once he knew he and his wife were tapped to be rescued. Other than the injured being given priority, Horgen said he never learned why he and his wife were selected.
“Probably one of the hardest things I had to do was walk through this hallway where people were just waiting there, thinking like, ‘You are the ones who get to get off,’ ” he said. “That was hard for me and my wife. It brought tears to our eyes.”
The couple, retired chiropractors, recounted the ordeal in a phone interview from their hotel room in Norway. From their room, they could see their battered cruise ship docked nearby. It had taken six tugboats to get it there.
Recalling the moment Lemieux was swept away, Horgen said they had been sent to their designated evacuation posts as the 47,800-ton ship teetered in the rough waters.
Then the extreme seesawing of the Viking Sky stopped. Things were calm as Horgen stood behind Lemieux as she sat on the floor.
That’s when “all of a sudden, just to the right about 25-30 [feet] away, through a window or door came a wall of water 6 feet in height,” Horgen said.
Lemieux said she lost all control in the force of the water.
“There was a chair coming at me with the legs,” she recalled, “and I thought it was going to take my eyes out. Then Rod grabbed me.”
Their rescue was not without its own peril, Horgen said, pointing out that the ship was “100 meters or less from the shoals, which would have torn us apart” if the gale-force winds had pushed the vessel just a bit closer to shore.
The cruise line paid for the couple’s night in a hotel in Molde as well as their flight Monday back to Minnesota.
The ship’s operators also offered the couple a free cruise.
“There’s a good chance we’ll take the same cruise,” he said. “I’m confident in them.”
Lemieux wasn’t so certain. “I think I need some more time to think about it.”