East London’s Station 7 was honoured at the NSRI AGM held in Cape Town last week, when the station received a Meritorious Service Award in recognition of their work during the sinking of the MTS Oceanos in 1991.
The Oceanos was a Greek cruise ship which set out from East London en route to Durban under the command of Captain Yiannis Avranas.
Shortly after departing, the ship encountered harsh weather conditions, including 40-knot winds and swells of up to 9m.
Because of the rough conditions, the Oceanos began flooding and was found on Saturday August 3 off the coast of Coffee Bay.
“On the Saturday when the ship got into difficulty, we were called by our station commander Paul Underwood,” said former station commander Geoff McGregor.
He said at first the team reacted in disbelief but after being assured of the seriousness of the situation, they sprung into action.
At the time, McGregor was serving as a coxwain.
“Our Land Rover went up [to Coffee Bay] and a lot of people went up in their own transportation because back then, that was the only way we could get there,” he said.
After getting clearance to pass through the Transkei border post that was situated at Kei Mouth, the Station 7 team got to work.
McGregor said the storm that had sunk the Oceanos was still in full force.
“There were gale force winds and rain, and trees blowing across the road,” he said.
“We were first-in-command so we set up the site for the air force, we got all the radios up and running.
“We were first on the scene but unfortunately we couldn’t launch our rescue vehicle because the sea was too big.”
Station 7 was eventually joined by members of the SA Air Force (SAAF) and together they began to rescue the stranded passengers. Sixteen helicopters were used for the operation, 13 of which were Air Force Pumas.
The rescuers were also assisted by the Dutch cargo ship Nedlloyd Mauritius, which had responded to the Oceanos’ distress call.
“Our main role was setting up the whole operation centre and running the centre until the military and Air Force took over,” McGregor said.
“I got there in the early hours of Sunday [August 4] and got home the following Tuesday night.”
Thankfully, all 571 people on board were rescued and it was these efforts which earned Station 7 their award.
“It was issued to the station for outstanding services during the rescue,” said McGregor.
Following the sinking, Captain Avranas and other crew members received heavy criticism for allegedly abandoning the passengers and escaping without helping the evacuation.
They were later convicted of negligence by a Greek board of inquiry for their actions.
A lifeboat from the ill-fated ship is still on display at the East London Museum.