Rey Bautista, a 29-year-old second mate on a Caribbean cruise ship, woke up early this morning on the deck of his cabin. Confused, he climbed back into his bunk, only to discover he couldn't lie down without holding on.
"I thought I was dreaming," he said. Then he heard cries of "What happened?" echoing from the passageways and watched as a light in his cabin flickered out.
What happened was that his ship, the 491-foot Vera Cruz I, had lurched sideways on its steel and wooden platform in a dry dock here, spilling the crew of 142 from their bunks and injuring 31, one critically.
The vessel, which had been placed in the dry dock 7 1/2 hours earlier for a routine hull check, slid 35 degrees to starboard at 3:40 a.m., with a crash that one witness likened to a sonic boom.
Shipyard spokesmen could give no immediate explanation for the accident, which snapped lines securing the ship, buckled a metal gangplank and crushed a 30-foot wooden wall next to the ship. The wall and a pier broke the ship's slide and rescue workers said it was miracle that more people were not seriously injured.
Crew members of the Panamanian-registered ship, many in their underwear and night clothes, fought their way up darkened, steeply angled passageways to the ship's top decks, then jumped or slid down lines to safety on the pier.
"It just happened so quick," said Sylvia Ventimeglia, 38, the first purser on the 27-year-old ship. "I was awakened by a creaking sound and I said 'Whoa,' to myself, 'something is happening here.' Seconds after the creaking, it was over. It was the sound of like wood breaking."
Early indications pointed to a problem with the aged wooden and steel platform on which the ship was perched. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris Walter of the Hampton Roads Marine Safety Office said he found no evidence of any shift in the Vera Cruz's weight that could have caused the accident.
Once the ship heeled over, it breached a wall of the dry dock, which became flooded. By dawn the Vera Cruz had righted itself to about 11 degrees.
Nash Bilisoly, an attorney for Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Corp., the private yard where the accident occurred, said the shipyard is waiting for an official report from the Coast Guard before commenting.
William Birkhead, another shipyard attorney, said a watchman checked the dry dock 10 minutes before the accident and found everything in order.
Shipyard officials said it was the first time a ship had ever fallen in a dry dock in the 69 years that the yard has been operating along the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River opposite downtown Portsmouth.
The Vera Cruz I, owned by the Bahama Cruise Line Inc. of New York, regularly sails between Florida and Mexico in the winters. The ship, which carries a crew and passengers numbering more than 1,000, had entered the yard here Sunday afternoon after a cruise from Montreal to New York.
The accident toppled chairs, threw ashtrays through the air and rolled a piano across a room. None of the ship's liquor bottles was broken.
Thirty-one crew members were taken to three area hospitals. All but one were treated and released. Avery Darling, a Jamaican room steward, was admitted to Norfolk General Hospital with head injuries, a hospital spokeswoman said. Darling, who remains unconscious, was in critical condition, she said.
Purser Ventimeglia was thrown from her berth. "My small fridge and all my plants landed on me," she said. "The first thing was to find something to wear. I grabbed my robe. I could hardly open my door. I don't know where I found the strength to open the door.
"I had visions of it going all the way over . . . . I started to come out of my cabin. The ship was listing so much the more you climbed up the more you slid back. It was like climbing a very steep ladder. My hands still hurt from holding onto the railing," she said.
Ventimeglia said it was cold and raining when she reached the pier and crew members gave her a coat and shoes. "Nobody was ready for this, nobody," she said.
The accident did not disrupt everyone's sleep. Delroy Miller, a buffet chef, slumbered peacefully until the ship's captain woke him up about 7 a.m. Back on board after a night of drinking and dancing at a disco, he said he found himself sliding to the end of his berth, but "I braced my feet against the wall and went back to sleep," he said.
The ship's captain, Charles Anderson, declined to comment, but the president of the Bahama Cruise Line, Julio del Valle, said in a statement, "We are also concerned about conflicting reports" of how the accident happened. Valle added that the Vera Cruz, whose smokestack sports a huge, black four-leaf clover, would resume its normal cruise schedule Oct. 15.
The ship itself was badly scraped on its right side, but, according to Birkhead, appeared to have received no other significant damage. They could give no damage estimate.
This afternoon the vessel was being pulled away from the dry dock, whose crushed and tangled wooden wall has left the platform "nonusable," according to a shipyard attorney.
Coast Guard investigators said they hope a closer look at the wooden platform would reveal the exact cause of the accident. The Vera Cruz was scheduled to be in the shipyard for 10 days of routine maintenance and refurbishing.
Luckily, shipyard officials said, no employes were working under the ship when it fell. The shipyard had planned to clean the hull at night in order to get the ship on its way as quickly as possible but had delayed the work, Birkhead said.