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611 TOURISTS THANKFUL TO BE SAFE

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Rescued passengers from a stricken Soviet cruise ship flew home to West Germany after attending a midnight church service Wednesday where some wept as they recalled their Arctic ordeal.

All 611 tourists, many of them elderly, escaped unhurt when the 25,000-ton Maxim Gorky hit an iceberg well inside the Arctic Circle Tuesday, sending them scrambling into lifeboats or onto ice floes to await rescue."Everyone who has prayed today can at least not say that God has not been listening," local priest Bjoern Soerensen told the congregation in this small Norwegian township on the island of Spitzbergen.

Following the service, the passengers left for Hamburg and Dusseldorf aboard two aircraft chartered by the cruise organizers.

But as they headed for home, questions were being raised about safety procedures and the liner's speed just before the collision.

In Moscow, the official Tass news agency quoted Sigurd Kleiven, commander of the Norwegian coast guard vessel Senja, as saying that the Gorky could have been holed only by ramming into an iceberg at high speed.

"There was a thick fog in that area at the time," Tass said.

More than half of the Maxim Gorky's Soviet crew flew to Moscow late Wednesday, but the others stayed on board to bring the vessel to Barentsburg, another Spitzbergen settlement.

Kleiven, whose ship went to the Maxim Gorky's rescue after the accident, told reporters the cruise liner was on its way to Barentsburg for preliminary repairs.

Norway declared an end to its part in the rescue operation with officials expressing satisfaction that all passengers had been rescued after the collision west of Spitzbergen.

"It was a very successful rescue operation. Nobody at all of the 611 passengers and 379 crew was injured," said Leif Eldring, governor of Spitzbergen.

Scores had to take refuge on an ice floe in freezing rain and near-zero temperatures and some had harsh words for the emergency facilities aboard the Soviet vessel.

"The Russian crew did not seem prepared to deal with an emergency," said Adolf Kuhn, 73.

Kuhn described how his lifeboat was left hanging over the side of the ship for two hours, suspended in midair because there was too much ice to launch it. "Finally we were launched but there were major shortcomings with the lifeboats. There was only a lot of alcohol and no drinking water," he said.

"My lifeboat kept hitting against the side of the ship. People were very frightened," said Brigitte Fruhwald, 52, from Munich. "The crew thought the lifeboat was damaged and about 90 of us left the boat and climbed onto the ice itself where we waited for about an hour."

The collision was the latest in a string of Soviet shipping accidents. Three years ago the liner Admiral Nakhimov sank in the Black Sea with the loss of 389 lives after a collision officially blamed on negligence.

The cruise liner Priamurye caught fire in the Japanese port of Osaka in May last year, killing 11 passengers.