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‘Are we gonna die’: Winston-Salem family relives cruise through ‘bomb cyclone’

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- With blustering winds, battering waves and flooded floors, a Winston-Salem family’s post-Christmas cruise turned from priceless to moments of wondering if they would pay the ultimate price in a matter of hours.

“The weather was nice,” said Sara Kouri, of the first days of their trip. “It was beautiful.”

The ship, called the Breakaway, is operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines. The Kouri’s trip departed from New York City, headed for the Bahamas. When they stopped at a Norwegian private island, the first signs of what was to come began to surface.

“The seas were already rough there,” Sara said.

During a Cirque du Soleil performance, a performer came crashing to the ground 10 feet from the Kouris.

“They missed a grip and fell straight on her shoulder and her head,” Sara detailed, with her husband, Brian. “It just didn’t feel right. ‘It was nauseating.’”

In the hours following, and conditions worsened, Sara and Brian split up; Sara, with their three teenage daughters and Brian in their room with their 3-year-old son.

Brian had begun researching the weather and started seeing reports of last week’s “bomb cyclone,” which pummeled the East Coast with snow and hurricane force winds. Televisions on the ship showed their current position and Brian had begun comparing it with Doppler radar.

With an on-board app their only means of communication, Brian began relaying the grim details of their location to Sara.

“Right in the reddest part of this cyclone was exactly where we were on this map,” he recalled.

On board, the height of the storm’s effects came between one and seven in the morning. Doors, which led to balconies of adjoining suites were torn from their frames.

“One of them had been ripped out of his hands into the ocean and all of their stuff started flying out,” Brian said, of a fellow passenger.

Sara says the look on the man’s teenage daughter’s face is “branded” in her mind, adding that she looked nearly catatonic.

“She watched her dad, I mean she was in the room, and thought that her dad was gonna be next,” Sara added.

In the hours following, water flooded the halls. Video taken from one of the Kouri’s daughters shows water as high as the 16th floor of the ship.

“I started researching what it took for a ship to capsize, I had no idea,” Brian said.

As fellow passengers began to panic, Sara had to remain calm for their daughters, including their eldest.

“The vision of her face and the fear in her face, and her asking me if, ‘Are we gonna die,’” Sara detailed.  “I just kept saying, ‘No, they’re panicking,’ and everything’s OK, and we’re gonna be fine and I had no idea if we were gonna be fine.”

Sara said as she sat there during the morning hours, “thinking awful things,” she clinched her hand so hard that she bent her wedding ring.

“That’s the kind of fear and terror that we’re talking about,” she added.

Both parents admit that there were times where they thought they may end up in the Atlantic Ocean.

“And what that’s gonna feel like, ‘And what do you do with four children,’ and how could we possibly protect them? ‘You couldn’t, and that was the worst, absolute worst feeling,’” they said.

Around 7 o’clock in the morning, the ship began to escape the storm and conditions began to improve. Videos taken by the Kouris show gloomy skies, with chairs from the ship’s decks stacked against the windows.

“That was when I felt for the first time we were definitely going to survive this,” Brian said.

For more than a day, the ship continued to sail toward New York, and it wasn’t until the family saw New Jersey on the horizon that they began to truly feel safe.

What they say they never heard was a single announcement about the storm from the captain.

“Not one announcement ever, from anybody on the ship came to us about anything,” they said.

Perhaps most astonishing to the Kouris was, shortly after docking in New York, the cruise line began boarding passengers for the next trip.

“I don’t know how they had the time to assess the boat to see if it was even OK to go out and sail,” Brian said.

A statement from Norwegian Cruise Line Public Relations reads:

During the early morning hours of January 4, Norwegian Breakaway encountered stronger than forecasted weather conditions due to winter storm Grayson. The safety of our guests and crew is always our top priority and the ship's Captain adjusted the ship's speed and itinerary accordingly to maintain the safest possible route, delaying the ship's arrival.  We sincerely apologize to our guests for the stronger than expected weather conditions and any resulting discomfort or inconvenience they may have experienced. Norwegian Breakaway has returned safely to port and has departed on the next scheduled cruise.”

Public relations added that, “as for compensation we are working with those guests who were directly affected,” and continued to say “the company is continually closely monitoring weather systems and all Norwegian Cruise Line ships offer state-of-the-art radar and weather equipment. In the event of inclement weather, our ships will sail a route that has the least impact to our guests and crew.”​