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Cruise passengers recall running aground in Arctic

First there was a loud shriek, then a sudden stop.

EDMONTON - First there was a loud shriek, then a sudden stop.

That's how passengers of the cruise ship Clipper Adventurer described running aground in the Northwest Passage in Canada's North late last week.

They flew south to Edmonton on a charter jet Monday afternoon after spending more than two days waiting for a coast guard rescue.

"It was very frightening," passenger Ed Jeffer, 73, told reporters at the Edmonton International Airport. "There was a loud shrieking sound from the hull of the ship, and the ship that was going 15 to 18 knots came to a dead stop within three or four seconds.

"Some people fell. Things fell down off the shelves. It wasn't like crashing into a wall, but it was a very sudden stop."

There were no injuries reported among the more than 100 passengers and 70 crew. A rock that was not on the map is being blamed for the ship's problems. The incident happened right as the cruise neared its end.

Jeffer, a retired psychiatrist from Washington, D.C., said some passengers were upset but calmed down once the crew told them the ship wasn't in danger of sinking.

He said they passed the time by playing board games and listening to lectures on the Arctic from experts who were on the trip.

Michiel Bedaux, 46, an Edmonton-based oilsands worker, was on the ship as part of a holiday with his wife and 14-year-old daughter.

They were in their cabin, packing to go home, when they felt a sudden jolt.

"Suddenly the ship stopped (and came) to an enormous, creaking halt," Bedaux said.

It began to tip slightly to one side, he said.

Panicked passengers rushed into the hallway outside their room, wondering what had happened. Crew members told them to put on their life-jackets and start heading towards the lifeboats.

In the initial moments after the incident, Bedaux said he couldn't help but worry if the ship was sinking.

"These are the first few thoughts that go through your mind.

"There were some older people who got a bit nervous. You give them a glass of water, you put their life-jacket on and calm them down."

Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen was dispatched to the scene after getting word of the accident and arrived Sunday afternoon.

A Zodiac inflatable boat was used to shuttle about 10 passengers at a time off the stuck ship, something that passenger Alice Cyr looked upon as an extra perk to her Arctic adventure.

Cyr, a resident of Tagish, Yukon, said when she found out what had happened, she didn't worry about it. The world traveller, who has also cruised through Antarctica, took it all in stride.

"I guess I'm just not a worrier and it was a very good, safe ship with very competent people," said Cyr, after she was greeted at the airport by her niece, Noelle Misko, 65, who was carrying a large bouquet of white flowers.

Instead of dwelling on a few moments of uncertainty after the initial impact, Cyr was focusing on the high points of the trip, which included seeing a polar bear.

"What a grand adventure. It was an incredibly lovely trip all the way around," she said.

Once the passengers were all safely aboard the icebreaker, it headed to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, and the passengers went from there to Edmonton.

The ship is run by Adventure Canada, an Ontario-based company that specializes in taking travellers to remote places.

The ship's owners and managers were expected to bring evaluators to the grounded ship to determine the best way to get it off the rock, said Cedar Bradley-Swan, a spokeswoman with the tour company.

The 70 crew members were still aboard the ship as of Monday afternoon, she said.

The Northwest Passage is still a relatively new region for tour companies to explore, because of diminishing sea ice, she said. The company intends to work with federal and coast guard officials to ensure such tours are safe, she said.

"Ships running aground, nobody ever wants it to happen, but it does happen from time to time and in particular you're always at a higher risk when you're in poorly chartered waters," said Bradley-Swan, who was at the airport to meet the weary passengers.

The company, which chartered the ship, has not soured on this little-travelled area of the Arctic and hopes to continue offering tours to the region, she said.

"Shipping is going to increase in the Northwest Passage whether the government and the rest of us want it to or not."

The trip was supposed to end in Edmonton on Saturday anyway, and the cruise itself was not cut short by the accident, Bradley-Swan pointed out.

Arrangements were being made on Monday to help passengers find flights to take them home as soon as possible, she said.