The guitarist who saved hundreds of people from a sinking cruise ship

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When the Oceanos began to sink, Moss Hills and his colleagues found themselves in charge of the rescue.

By: BBC NEWS

The ship’s stewards, normally experts at bringing drinks and food without spilling anything, were beginning to have a hard time. Moss, a guitarist from Zimbabwe who works aboard the cruise ship with his wife Tracy, who played bass, had never seen them throwing turntables before.

The ship’s stewards, normally experts at bringing drinks and food without spilling anything, were beginning to have a hard time. Moss, a guitarist from Zimbabwe who works aboard the cruise ship with his wife Tracy, who played bass, had never seen them throwing turntables before.

Earlier in the day, gale-force winds and heavy rain had delayed sailing several times for the final leg of the cruise to Durban.

But with no sign of improving conditions, the captain decided to weigh anchor and the Oceanos, with 581 passengers and crew on board, sailed into 40-knot winds and 30-foot waves.

Moss and Tracy, both in their thirties, used to throw parties on the pool deck as the ship pulled out of port.

But today the party had moved indoors, and Moss was struggling to keep his balance as he played his guitar as the boat rocked.

I felt a knot in my stomach

“The storm just kept getting worse and worse,” says Moss.

At dinner, Tracy, whom her husband describes as unflappable, decided to go to her stateroom to organize an emergency bag, just in case.

“It’s gone,” says Moss, “and all of a sudden, boom, all the lights went out.”

When none of the ship’s officers appeared to give instructions, Moss, who was not easily frightened, began to feel uneasy.

“You’re on a ship in the middle of the ocean, in the dead of night, in a terrible storm,” he says. “I felt a knot in my stomach.”

When the dim little emergency lights came on, Moss went upstairs to check on the musical instruments onstage. Microphone and cymbal stands were scattered everywhere.

Then, suddenly, he realized that he couldn’t hear the constant throbbing background noise of the engines. The ship had lost power and was slowing down.

Soon the 153-meter Oceanos slid sideways on the waves.

Stress and leakage

Anxious, passengers began to arrive at the lounge. Plant pots, ashtrays, and chairs slid, and people had to move from their seats to sit on the floor as the ship lurched violently from side to side, port to starboard.

About an hour passed and the atmosphere became tense. Moss grabbed an acoustic guitar and started singing along with some of the other artists to try and keep his cool.

But as time went on, he noticed that the ship was listing, no longer returning to a level position when buffeted by the storm.

“Something’s wrong,” he told Tracy, “I’m going to try to find out what’s going on.”

Hanging from the railings, Moss and another artist, Julian, a wizard from Yorkshire, made their way through the darkness below deck.

They could hear excited voices speaking many different languages. Officers were running, some were carrying bags, some were wearing life jackets, and some were wet.

“Everyone was wild-eyed and scared,” says Moss. “We were trying to ask ‘what’s going on?’ but it was like we didn’t exist.”

Julian and Moss continued to the engine room, the lowest part of the ship.

“We were way below the waterline, in the dark, alone, and no one was there,” says Moss. “That would never, ever happen, even when you’re docked.”

The thick metal doors that acted as a safety barrier by preventing water from moving from one ship’s compartment to another in the event of a flood, were securely fastened.

“But it seemed like there was a large body of water behind those airtight doors,” says Moss.

 

The Oceanos was sinking.

Back in the living room, there still hadn’t been any announcements about what was going on. Moss found the cruise director who said the captain had told him they would have to abandon ship.

“Then we found out that a lifeboat had already left with much of the crew and senior officers,” he says.

 

Complex maneuvers

Moss and the others had no idea how to evacuate a cruise ship, or how to launch the lifeboats that hung high above the deck along each side of the ship, but there was no one else qualified to do it.

One by one, they began to lower them from the starboard side onto the deck. They didn’t know how to hold them steady as people boarded, so Moss improvised by standing with one leg on the deck of the ship and the other on a lifeboat.

But every time the boat turned to starboard, Moss had to jump back into the Oceanos before the boat moved away, opening a gap of a couple of meters, and then he would turn backwards, crashing with such force against the ship’s hull. that splinters came out.

Each lifeboat, now with up to 90 people inside, many screaming in fear, would be lowered into the sea on cables. But Moss had no idea how to start the engines or even where the keys were.

“We would let them go, at night, and they would just drift away into the waves,” he says. “The people in the boats had a torturous time: they were being swamped with spray, it was cold and it was completely dark, but we had to keep going until all the lifeboats on the starboard side were launched into the water.”

By now, more and more water was entering the ship which was listing noticeably to the starboard side of her. Launching the remaining lifeboats on the port side safely was almost impossible.

Instead of being lowered into the water laden with people, the lifeboats would cling to the side of the ship until the next big wave came along, which tipped the ship just enough to let them hang free.

“And then gravity was suddenly throwing the lifeboat about three or four meters in one go, almost throwing people out to sea, it was horrible,” says Moss.

Finally, he realized that it was too dangerous to continue.

“In the effort of trying to rescue people, we were going to possibly kill them,” says Moss.

And time was running out.

Where is the captain?

Unable to launch any more lifeboats, but with hundreds of people still in need of rescue, Moss and others headed to the ship’s bridge, where they assumed they would find the remaining captain and senior officers, to ask what to do next.

“We looked inside, but no one was there,” says Moss. “That’s when we realised, it’s just us.”

Orange-red lights flickered in the dark, but Moss had no idea what most of the equipment was for, or how it worked. They took turns trying to use the radio to send an SOS.

“I was calling – ‘mayday! mayday! mayday!’ – and waiting for someone to answer,” says the musician.

He finally answered, a deep rich voice answered. “Yeah, what’s your mayday?”

Relieved, Moss explained that he was on the Oceanos cruise ship and that she was sinking.

“Good. How much time do you have left to stay afloat?”

“I don’t know, we’ve got the starboard rails in the water, we’re rolling, we’ve absorbed a lot of water,” Moss said. “We still have at least 200 people on board.”

“Fine. What is your position?”

“We are probably halfway between the port of East London and Durban.”

“No, no, no, what are your coordinates?”

Moss had no idea what the coordinates were.

“What’s your rank?”

“I have no rank. I’m a guitarist.”

Be quiet.

“What are you doing on the bridge?”

“Well, there’s no one else here.”

“Who is on the bridge with you?”

“So I said, ‘There’s me, my wife – the bass player – we’ve got a magician here…'”

Moss was put in contact with two small boats that were near the Oceanos. They told him to find the captain and get him on the bridge. But Moss had no idea where he was.

“I knew he wouldn’t be down because we were sinking,” he says. “I was doing regular checks to see where the water level was, and a deck below us was flooded.”

Moss finally found the captain, right at the rear of the ship, smoking in the dark. Moss explained that they needed his help, urgently.

“He was just looking at me, eyes wide, saying, ‘No need, no need,'” Moss recalls.

“I think he was in deep, deep shock.”

 

Help request

The two nearby ships had only one lifeboat each, so there was little they could do to help. They shared the coordinates of the sinking ship with the South African authorities, who began to organize an aerial rescue mission.

As the storm continued to batter the ship, Moss and Tracy sat together in the dark, praying that help would arrive before it was too late.

“I think the ship is going to sink and it is very likely that we will go down with it,” Moss told his wife.

He and Tracy had a 15-year-old daughter, Amber, who had been aboard the Oceanos for the holidays and had disembarked a few days earlier. Amber was now back at boarding school in South Africa.

“She can’t lose both her parents,” Moss recalls saying. “Whatever we do, we have to make sure at least one of us gets out.”

Rescue

More than three hours passed before the first rescue helicopter arrived and hovered over the ship.

Two navy divers were taken to the deck of the Oceanos. They said they needed help getting everyone out before the ship sank, and Moss was given a five-minute crash course on how to operate a helicopter airlift.

“Remember, the harness needs to be quite tight under people’s armpits,” the diver told him. “Make sure you do it right because otherwise they’ll tip over and fall, you’ll kill them on the deck. Do two at a time or we’ll run out of time. Yeah? Go.”

A navy diver went to organize the helicopter rescue at the rear of the ship and Tracy and Moss organized a second at the front.

But as the ship sank deeper and deeper under the waves, people began jumping off the sloping deck in panic and a rigid inflatable had to be launched into the rough sea to rescue them.

Hanging in the air from the helicopter’s cable, the people Moss was trying to save were being thrown against parts of the ship by the strong winds as they were dragged into the sky.

There was no telling how seriously injured they were, and Moss momentarily lost his nerve. But with so many people still on board, he realized that he had no choice but to move on.

In all, five helicopters joined the rescue mission, shuttling back and forth, carrying 12 people at a time to safety as the light faded and the darkness lifted.

Exhausted, Moss and Tracy were among the last to be strapped into harnesses.

“When we were flying over the ship, that’s when it really hit me,” says Moss, “I could see that the Oceanos was in critical condition. You could see waves crashing over the bow where we had been rescuing people.”

As the helicopter carrying Moss landed on the grass, passengers from the cruise ship ran toward him singing and cheering, and reached out to hug him.

“I started choking and sobbing,” Moss recalls, “and then I just collapsed.”

Final sinking

On August 4, 1991, about 45 minutes after the last person on board had been airlifted to safety, the Oceanos slipped underwater.

All of those who had been put into lifeboats were rescued by passing ships and surprisingly no lives were lost.

Moss and Tracy, now living in Liverpool, UK, continued to work as cruise ship entertainers for many years. Even now, three decades later, Tracy prefers not to talk about the sinking or dwell on how close they all came to losing their lives.

But Moss, who has been asked about this story many times, finds it cathartic to talk about it. He remembers what happened with great relief.

“I’m not invincible,” Moss says, “but if I can get through that, I can get through anything.”

There was an investigation in Greece which concluded that there was negligence on the part of the captain of the Oceanos and four other senior officers in the sinking of the ship.