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PPA officer involved in Amalie rescue: Operations like this truly exceptional

The Amalie listing in heavy seas earlier this month.
The Amalie listing in heavy seas earlier this month. Source: ERR

A rescue operation of the scale enacted earlier this month after a ferry got into difficulty in the Gulf of Riga happens around once every 10 years, rescuers involved in the incident say.

Earlier this month, the Amalie, which serves the route between two of Estonia's smallest inhabited islands, Ruhnu and Kihnu, on a charter basis, was the focus of attention after getting into trouble in heavy seas.

The vessel was en route to Ruhnu on the evening of Thursday, November 9, when it started to list, thought to be the result of improperly distributed cargo.

This led to the overnight rescue operation by the PPA and its maritime wing, with some of the dozen or so on board taken off the Amalie, and the remainder, including two crew members, limping home to port in Mersrags, Latvia.

Tanel Liblik, who commanded the PPA helicopter tasked with rescuing those on board, said: "The maritime surveillance center informed us that 14 people were in trouble, and to prepare to take off. this was no ordinary call-out."

Also involved that night was PPA officer Jarno Kalind, who told "Ringvaade" that: "Our task was to fly out quickly and bring aid. The team assessed risks and ways we could rescue those on board, what tools we use."

"We thought through all the hazardous scenarios," Kalind, who acted as helicopter winch operator on the night, went on.

"Rescue operations of this scale take place very rarely, perhaps once in a decade. The last time I personally was involved in a major rescue operation like this came in 2000, when 13 sailors needed to be taken off a Russian ship, near Hiiumaa," Kalind went on.

"The decision to winch [passengers] came from the control center," Liblik said, "after it had transpired that leaving people on board was likely to be more dangerous than rescuing them".

This necessitated a complex and dangerous maneuvering operation (see video below) of the helicopter close to the vessel, and lowering down a PPA operative on to the deck, in windy conditions.

While this proved hazardous, the team had trained constantly for such an eventuality, Liblik added.

This PPA operative remained on deck and passed up those being rescued, one by one, while the winch operator helped them aboard the helicopter.

Everyone rescued was in good enough shape not to need stretchers used to lift unwell or injured people; seven were rescued, one of whom was taken to hospital in Pärnu.

Three people were also transferred off the Amalie to another vessel.

This left six people on board, by which time it was the morning of the Friday.

Initial reports stated that the PPA helicopter had had to return to Tallinn to refuel, but media reports later stated that this action was the result of serious fatigue on the part of the rescuers, who had been working through the night in arduous conditions, and would not have been able to safely continue their work from that point.

Cargo aboard the 26 meter-long ferry included an empty Alexela fuel tanker and a mechanical excavator, and footage showed the vessel being buffeted by the waves as its crew continued to make way to the Latvian coast escorted by other vessels, including those from the Latvian navy.

The Amalie's fairly weighty cargo load, after arriving in port in Mersrags, Latvia. Source: Ragnar Kond/ERR

Initially, the Amalie's crew had attempted to steer the vessel to Ruhnu harbor.

The Amalie remained afloat and navigable with a 10-15 degree list, and arrived safely in Mersrags around 2.30 p.m. on the Friday.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Annika Remmel

Source: 'Ringvaade.'

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