The sinking of Oceanos

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

Durban Daily News

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.

Midday, the sea spills over the bow of Oceanos.

©Louise Gubb

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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