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Rough seas and the theme from ‘Titanic’

Passengers aboard the Norwegian Dawn endure 40-foot seas steaming through a storm en route to N.Y.

Passengers aboard the Norwegian Dawn endure 40-foot seas steaming through a storm en route to N.Y.

In their cabin on the top stateroom deck of the storm-tossed cruise ship Norwegian Dawn, Karen and John Lavergne rode atop their bed as it slid from one side to the other and back. It was fun, and Karen, a seagoing novice, was laughing.

Her merriment didn’t travel far from their cabin, however. One deck below, the stateroom of William and Ellen Tesauro was empty. Figuring they

couldn’t sleep with the ship lurching as it was, the couple, who had been on cruises before, had descended earlier to Gatsby’s Champagne Bar on the sixth deck, where they say there was outright hostility. First, there were two explosive sounds as ceiling tiles with lights in them crashed to the floor, apparently shaken loose by the movement of the 965-foot ship. Then a wine rack toppled, barely missing William Tesauro and scattering bottles across the floor. “A woman’s screaming,” recalls Ellen Tesauro. “Meanwhile, the piano player starts singing the theme from ‘Titanic.’ People are booing and yelling, angry, like: What are you, out of your mind? She stops playing and says, ‘Well, would you like me to play The Poseidon Adventure?’ ”

Before the night was over, Gina Fraley, on her honeymoon and aboard the ship because she fears flying, was huddled in her cabin on the ninth deck, considering forms of suicide to avoid being eaten by sharks when the ship went down.

An explanation for this wild ride in the very early hours of April 16 could be found on every one of the ship’s 15 decks, where the on-board television channel informed the 2,599 passengers that seas were ranging from 20 to 42 feet. And conditions wouldn’t improve in the dark hours ahead, as Capt. Niklas Peterstam steered the ship steadily and slowly north toward New York City.

The skipper held course until just before dawn. It was then, Norwegian Cruise Lines officials say, that a 70-foot “freak” wave slammed the Norwegian Dawn head-on. (Investigators now have another theory; more on that later.) A window frame at the forward end of the bridge on the 11th deck was bent by the wall of water. Windows in two cabins below the bridge on the 10th and ninth decks were shattered, and water poured through them and down the halls, sending seawater into 62 cabins in all. Finally, Peterstam decided to turn his ship and head for shelter in Charleston, S.C.

Maritime officials from the Bahamas, where the Norwegian Dawn is registered, had begun an investigation of the ship’s voyage, joined by an investigator from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. There have been allegations — denied by Norwegian Cruise Lines — that Peterstam was pushing his ship to get back to New York, where she was to be used as a set for Donald Trump’s television series “The Apprentice.” And despite an offer by the cruise line to refund half of the cost of the cruise and to give 50 percent off the cost of a future cruise, attorneys are lining up to file suits on behalf of passengers.

Norwegian Cruise Lines blames the rough ride on an unforeseen change in the weather. “It was definitely extremely rough weather, and we know it was unsettling for a number of people,” says cruise line spokesperson Susan Robison. “There was a low pressure system off Cape Hatteras. It was forecast to move in a southeasterly direction off the ship’s track. We make this trip every week … and sometimes we experience rough weather. The plan was to proceed between the shore and the low.”

But the storm didn’t move, says Robison. When the seas became too rough, she says, Peterstam reduced speed from a normal 24 knots to minimum steerage of 4 to 6 knots.

The company issued a news release denying it had put its passengers at risk to return to New York for the Trump filming. “To accommodate the shoot, NCL had altered the itinerary of the cruise ending on April 17 to permit the ship a greater than usual margin to get back to New York,” the statement reads. “The ‘Apprentice’ shoot had no influence whatsoever over the operational decisions taken relating to Norwegian Dawn’s passage home to New York or the choices the captain made in navigating the rough waters encountered off the Carolina coast on Friday night.”

Resul Dalipi, 32, a passenger from Newtown, Conn., says he had received an e-mail from the cruise line a few days before departure announcing a change in the ship’s route and offering a 100-percent refund if he chose not to board. The company didn’t explain the Trump connection, he says. Dalipi, who was vacationing with his girlfriend before starting a medical residency at Stamford (Conn.) Hospital, says that when the ship was hit by the big wave it seemed to fall on its side, and he was afraid to open his watertight door. “I wasn’t sure if we were under the water,” says the first-time cruiser. But he says he would take another cruise on the ship. “Actually, it was pretty enjoyable for me,” he says. “It was kind of fun going back and forth.”

Other passengers were unamused. For some, their displeasure began well before Norwegian Dawn encountered foul weather. Among them were Howard Rose, 55, and his wife, Janet, 53, of Hillsborough, N.J., organizers of fine arts and crafts shows. “It started off very poorly because two or three days before leaving, we were told the itinerary was changed. We were never given any reason,” says Howard Rose. “We booked last June, knowing we were going to Nassau. Because they decided they wanted to be on Donald Trump’s show, 2,500 peoples’ plans were changed. Instead, the only part of the Bahamas we saw was [Norwegian Cruise Line’s private] island, just a beach.”

Rose says that cruise line representatives boarded the ship in Miami on Thursday because so many people had issued complaints. “I can see changing something because of the weather, but not for Trump,” he says.

The Tesauros, who own a construction business in Wayne, N.J., were among those who had complained. They had booked the cruise because it was the first time in 17 years they could take a trip by themselves, with their two children away in college. And they chose the Norwegian Dawn because it was to go to Nassau, where Ellen, 47, and William, 56, had spent their honeymoon. The trip they booked had scheduled stops in Port Canaveral on Tuesday, Miami on Wednesday, Stirrup Key in the Bahamas (the cruise line’s island) on Thursday, and Nassau on Friday or Saturday, Ellen Tesauro says. The actual itinerary was Port Canaveral on Tuesday, Stirrup Key on Wednesday, and Miami on Thursday.

“In Miami, there were hundreds and hundreds of people complaining to corporate people,” she says.

Tesauro, who says she grew up sailing, says that in Miami everyone was required to disembark and go through U.S. Customs to avoid spending the time when they returned Sunday morning to New York. “They made everybody get off the ship and locked us up in the customs building for three hours,” she says. “Our excursion left without us because we were in customs.”

With some passengers still feeling hostile, the ship left Miami at 1 a.m. Friday, April 15, according to Norwegian Cruise Lines. “About 5, 6, 7 o’clock [in the morning] seas started getting rougher,” says James Fraley, 26, of Keansburg, N.J. He and his wife, Gina, 33, were on their honeymoon. “As the day progressed, it got worse and worse. By dinner time, things were falling all over the place. It was nuts; it was pandemonium, chaos. It was something like out of the scene of a movie.”

The seas were so rough that the Fraleys were asked to leave their table, which was sliding across the dining room, he says. They were in the piano bar when the crowd began booing the “Titanic” singer. The Fraleys decided to return to their cabin to watch television. “At 2 o’clock, our bed went from one side of the room to the other,” says Fraley. “She [Gina] said, ‘I’m frigging outta here.’ We went to the 7th-floor lobby, and there’s about 150 people there, hugging each other, crying, people yelling at the reception desk, telling the captain to turn around and go back. It was nuts; it was chaos.”

It was about this time that Karen Lavergne, 36, was enjoying her ride on her own sliding bed. She and her husband, John, 39, and her mother, Marion Champigny, 67, all of Sturbridge, Mass., were sharing a stateroom. It was the first anniversary of a motorcycle accident that had left John paralyzed and in a wheelchair, and Champigny had paid for the trip so they could be away from home and some unhappy memories. On Friday morning, after the ship had left Miami, Champigny, who had been sitting out on deck, awakened her daughter. “There was really low, black clouds,” says Karen Lavergne. “A funnel cloud appeared, so we videotaped that. You think to yourself, That close to a funnel cloud can’t be good. But we weren’t panicking yet.”

By Friday night, “It was so bad the captain kept coming on, telling us yes we are in a storm, it’s supposed to get better. He had told us he had called the Coast Guard, letting them know where we were.”

The Lavergnes and Champigny had stayed in their room since breakfast Saturday morning. It was impossible to handle John’s wheelchair in the conditions, says Karen Lavergne, so she and her mother took turns leaving the cabin for food or other needs.

“Still, at that point I didn’t realize how much danger we were in,” Lavergne says. “This was my first cruise. In the middle of the night, between 1 and 3 a.m., everything starts falling off the shelves. The doors in the cabinets were opening. Everything was crashing. My husband’s and my bed was actually going from one side of the room to the other. I was laughing. My mother was panicked but didn’t say anything. At that point, I still thought everything was funny.”

Lavergne says the three of them got no sleep during the night. “When you’re in a car and go over those bumps that make your stomach drop, it was that constantly,” she says.

The captain already had announced over the intercom that the storm was more severe than he had been told it would be when the big wave hit. “I didn’t know that it was something different. We thought it was a more severe part of the storm,” Lavergne says.

The honeymooning Fraleys had spent four hours on the entertainment decks when, at about 6 a.m. Saturday, they decided to return to their room. “It was still rough; we were both tired,” says James Fraley. “As we’re walking up to the room, we go to open the door and boom, this 70-foot wave hit the ship. My wife went flying forward toward the bed from the hallway. I braced myself against the cabinets where our clothes were. It was the worst feeling to think you were going to die and to not know when and how — going to drown, be eaten by sharks. My wife was thinking of ways to commit suicide before she hit the water.”

Having been told they could make free phone calls to shore, the Fraleys both phoned home. “We made phone calls to our loved ones thinking we were going to die,” he says. (Fraley says he misunderstood the offer and called from their cabin, not the desk, and they were later billed $100 for the two calls.)

“By 6:30, 7 o’clock they told everybody to sit down and brace, including the [1,166-member] crew because they were going to attempt to turn the ship toward land,” Fraley says. “They turned it, and they told us of the damage over the intercom.”

When the Norwegian Dawn reached Charleston, Coast Guard inspectors boarded the ship and repairs were made. The Fraleys left the ship to get a ride to New Jersey from a family member who happened to be driving north from Florida at the time. The cruise line provided land transportation for about 200 others. The rest of the passengers rode the ship back to New York, arriving at 8 a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning.

Fraley is among about 150 passengers who are now represented by a Long Island personal injury law firm, according to attorney Brian J. Levy.

“Our theory is very simple,” Levy says. “He [the captain] was in a hurry to get into the port of New York for a financial engagement the ship had. As a result of knowingly driving the boat right into a storm, he put 2,500 people’s lives in jeopardy simply for exposure, financial gain.”

Norwegian Cruise Lines officials have another explanation. Capt. Svein Sleipnes, vice president of marine nautical operations, conceded that the ship was traveling much of Friday in seas that ranged between 29 and 44 feet, driving into north-northwest winds of up to 47 knots. Although Peterstam had begun on a course close to shore, he had crossed to the east of the Gulf Stream in an attempt to get outside the storm, Sleipnes says. When that didn’t work, the skipper slowed the ship.

“The ship is built to withstand heavy seas,” says Bill Hamlin, the line’s vice president of fleet operations. Peterstam says that prior to the freak wave at 6:20 a.m., the seas had calmed somewhat, from “very rough seas” to waves in the 20-foot range, Hamlin says.

Sleipnes says that Bahamian investigators have speculated that there was no freak wave. Rather, due to the large and long waves, they believe the Norwegian Dawn’s stern was lifted and the bow plunged deep through the next wave, causing green water to rise as high as the 10th deck, 60 feet above the waterline.

It wasn’t quite light outside, and while Peterstam wanted to turn the bow away from the seas he had been punching through for nearly 24 hours, he felt it would be better to wait for daylight, Sleipnes says. At that point, the captain timed the waves for about 15 minutes and then made a 180-degree turn, which put the Norwegian Dawn almost on a course for Charleston, 135 nautical miles away. At the dock, the Fraleys were the first ashore, followed by another 327 passengers, 200 of whom took a charter flight to Newark, N.J., paid for by the cruise line.

Nigel James, assistant director of the Bahamas Maritime Authority in London, which is investigating the incident, says the purpose of the inquiry is “to establish the facts, look at what the cause has been, and then to produce recommendations with respect to avoiding a recurrence where possible.”

The agency will submit a report to the International Maritime Organization, but the purpose of that report is “not to apportion blame directly to individuals,” says James. “If there was a case to be answered by any certified officer, that would be a separate inquiry. We could also take that on.”