RIGA - More than 660 people, mostly older German tourists, were evacuated from a massive cruise ship that ran aground not far from Latvia's northwestern coast.
The Bahamas-registered Mona Lisa got stuck in a sand bank in the Irbe Strait, which runs between the Latvian coast and the Estonian island of Saaremaa, approximately 18 kilometers from Ventspils on May 4. None of the 984 people on board were injured in the incident.
The captain of the Mona Lisa, a Greek national, gave the order to evacuate the ship after four tugboats failed to dislodge it from the sand bank late May 4 and early the next morning.
Apparently the captain had wanted to keep trying the tugboats, but with wind speeds increasing Latvia's coast guard service put pressure on him to call for the evacuation of 651 passengers and 11 crew members.
A total of 332 crew members remained on board to continue on the rescue operation.
"The evacuation was completed without any problems, and all the passengers seemed to be in good spirits," said Liene Ulbina, head of the coast guard's public relations department.
Passengers disembarked onto two naval ships that ferried them to Ventspils, where the civil defense committee held an extraordinary meeting later that day to decide on lodging, security, first aid and transportation services for the evacuees.
The passengers were then transported to Riga by train. They were put up in several Riga hotels, and many flew from Latvia early the next morning.
According to reports, passengers took the incident in stride, and observers say there was no panic or extreme anxiety when the ship ran aground. Some of the tourists reportedly considered the ordeal to be something of an adventure.
Defense Minister Vinets Veldre, who spent the night on the cruise ship following the accident, told journalists that the accident was most likely not caused by bad weather.
The captain was probably trying to maneuver the ship so that tourists could take pictures of the Kolka lighthouse, Veldre said following an May 4 crisis management council meeting.
Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis also went to Ventspils to meet with rescue workers and discuss lodging and transportation issues.
Maritime Agency Deputy Director Arturs Brokovskis told Latvian State Television that the ship had strayed 700 meters from its planned route.
Four tugboats worked through the night on May 4 to dislodge the 30,000 ton Mona Lisa, but were unable to move the vessel. The ship has a nine meter draft and was stuck in five meter deep water. It was still stuck when The Baltic Times went to press.
Four navy ships 's the Varonis, Virsaitis, Kristaps and Gaisma 's and two border guard ships 's the Tira and the Randa 's took part in the rescue operation. Both the Swedish and the Estonian coast guard offered their assistance in the evacuation.
After the tugboats failed to remove the ship, rescue workers drained the water in the ballast to try to lighten the vessel. When that failed, workers emptied the ships fuel tanks.
According to international law, the ships owners will have to cover all costs of the rescue operation and the removal of the ship.
The cruise ship left Kiel, Germany, on May 1 for an extended tour of the Baltic Sea. Though most of the passengers were German retirees, there were also a number of Greek, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish and English tourists on board.
The 173 meter long Mona Lisa was built in 1966 and belongs to the German shipping company Lord Nelson Seereisen.
The ship was apparently not damaged in the accident, though a full investigation has yet to be carried out.
This was not the first time that the Mona Lisa has run aground. It has reportedly run into trouble as many as nine times in the past. According to Spiegel, a German publication, the ship has previously been stranded in the Norwegian Fjords and in Venice, Italy.