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The Oceanos shipwreck

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The sinking of Oceanos

Photographs, some taken by survivors, document the cruise ship sinking off Southern Africa’s eastern coast in August 1991.

 / Updated 20 PHOTOS
Oceanos leaving the port of Piraeus, Greece in June 1983.

The 500-foot long Oceanos was first launched in 1952. It is photographed here leaving the port of Piraeus, Greece.

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July 1991. Vacationers enjoy the pool deck early in the cruise.

The Oceanos' final voyage was a seven-day sail along the South African shore from Durban to Cape Town and back again. Here, vacationers enjoy the pool deck early in the cruise. The ship, which had 571 passengers when it started sinking, had seven decks, two lounges, a dining room, and eight lifeboats.

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August 3, 1991. Passenger Karen Winter on the East London pier before the ship's final overnight sail.

Passenger Karen Winter photographed on the pier in the town of East London, just moments before the ship’s final sail in 1991. A storm was building but the captain had a schedule to keep. Karen is among the survivors interviewed in the Dateline NBC documentary.

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Dinner in the Byzantine Dining Room.

Dinner in the ship’s Byzantine Dining Room the night of the storm was fraught with nervous laughter. As the ship lurched through massive swells, passengers struggled to keep the food from sliding off their tables.

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Waves rock the ship.

After dinner, passengers stumbled to the lounge for the end-of-cruise show. Unbeknownst to them, the ship’s hull had fractured below decks and seawater was pouring in to the generator room. Soon, the Oceanos lost power and the lounge plunged into darkness.

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TFC staffers line passengers up for the lifeboats.

Most of the ship’s officers and many of the crew began abandoning ship, leaving cruise director Lorraine Betts and her entertainment staff to tend to almost 400 passengers. In this photograph, passengers are starting to line up for the lifeboats.

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Lifeboat Number 2, full of women and children, is lowered into the sea.

Lifeboat No. 2, full of women and children, is lowered into an angry sea. Wives inside recall the trauma of saying goodbye to their husbands.

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Passengers who didn't make the lifeboats wait out the night on the rear deck.

Passengers wait out the night on the rear deck, uncertain how or if they will be rescued.

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A bridge-level view of sunrise. The storm has broken.

As the storm breaks at dawn, a bridge-level view of the sunrise is photographed. The photographer is Moss Hills, a guitarist on the cruise, who later that day helps run the airlift rescue.

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Nearly 240 passengers and crew would greet the rescuers on deck.

Two rescue helicopters from Durban were the first to arrive. Navy Diver Paul Whiley, seen here hanging above the deck, remembers the shock of seeing nearly 240 faces beneath him.

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Passengers cling to the top rail.

Passengers cling to the top rail as they line up for the airlift.

Durban Daily News
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A member of the crew signals the chopper from the rear deck.

A member of the crew signals the chopper from the pool deck. Behind, all the deck chairs and tables sit in a mass against the bottom rail.

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Midday, the sea spills over the bow.

Midday, the sea spills over the bow of Oceanos.

©Louise Gubb
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The Oceanos shipwreck

About 2:00 p.m., the Oceanos begins its vertical descent. The Oceanos thrust her stern into the air and slid nose first into the sea.

Louise Gubb
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The Oceanos shipwreck.

After ramming into the sea floor, the Oceanos slipped silently beneath the waves. Towards the end, passengers had to jump into the sea.

Louise Gubb
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A member of the crew signals the chopper from the rear deck.

After jumping off the ship, Magician Julian Butler (left) helped save passengers and crew by pulling them into inflatable dinghies. Here, he’s in a chopper headed back to shore.

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Piet and Peter Niemand gather with survivors at the Haven.

Piet Niemand (left, laying his head against his fiancée’s shoulder) and his son Peter (sitting behind) gather with survivors at the rescue staging ground. Father and son, who’d each helped with the rescue, had been separated during the airlift and tearfully reunited on land.

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Oceanos '91
CAPT. AVRANAS 24 AUG 1991

The ship’s captain, Yiannis Avranas, was one of the first rescued in the airlift. Avranas declined Dateline NBC’s request for an interview, but after the incident, explained that given the lack of communications on board, he felt he could better run the rescue from shore.

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Survivor George Walton with Navy Diver Paul Whiley. For his actions, Whiley received South Africa's highest medal of honor, the Honoris Crux Gold.

For his actions, Navy Diver Paul Whiley received South Africa’s highest medal of honor, an Honoris Crux Gold. It was only the sixth awarded in South African history.

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Lifeboat No. 5, salvaged, now part of an exhibit at the East London Museum in South Africa. 
The plaque to the left says: "Lifeboat number 5 from the ill-fated Oceanos was presented by the east London survivors to commemorate one of the most remarkable rescue operations of the twentieth century. In gale-force winds and heavy seas all 571 aboard were saved before the Oceanos sank off the Transkei coast on 4 August 1991. 40 survivors spent the night in this open lifeboat before being rescued by Kaszuby 11.

Lifeboat No. 5, salvaged, is now part of an exhibit at the East London Museum in South Africa.

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