Between life and death in freezing water

School boating trip turns fatal as boat capsizes; experts say conditions were too dangerous

The teenage students lying in the freezing water didn’t think they would survive. But they fought to save themselves and each other when a boat with 13 boarding school students and two teachers capsized in southern Zealand last week on Friday.

The extent of the tragedy is still uncertain. One teacher is believed dead and seven of the teens are recovering after being revived from induced comas on Monday.

“All the students are showing signs of life and they are all breathing without aid,” Michael Wanscher, the chief surgeon at the Rigshospitalet’s heart department, said on Tuesday.

The 15 people, from a boarding school in the town of Lundby, were onboard a dragon boat when it capsized roughly a kilometre outside Præstø in southern Zealand.

According to the survivors they went out in an attempt to break a school record. The challenge consisted of a timed row out to a buoy on the bay and back.

At the start, the weather was clear, but some 30 minutes into the record attempt, the wind rose and teacher Michael Jørgensen told everyone to stop rowing. As they tried to make their way around the buoy, they created a big wave that made the boat capsize.

One of the teachers, a 33-year-old female, and seven students made it back to the shore on their own, while five teens lost consciousness in the water and were later picked up lifeless by rescuers, along with a six student who remained on the boat.

When the students arrived at the hospital, some had body temperatures of between 16 and 18 degrees, leaving doctors with no choice but to put them in medically-induced comas.

On Monday night doctors started reviving the teens, but it is too early to say how soon they will recover and whether their brain functions will remain intact.

“Over the past days we have slowly raised their body temperatures up to 37 degrees,” said Wanscher. “Their condition is no longer critical, but we will need to monitor them for a while longer at the hospital. They have had a long spell with no blood supply to their brains. That’s something the brain will need time to recover from.”

The body of 44-year-old teacher Michael Jørgensen has not yet been found and the police have given up the search. Police say Jørgensen made a heroic effort during the incident. He helped his students up on to the capsized boat and organised them into teams so they could swim ashore together. He was last seen sitting on the capsized boat holding a severely battered girl. The girl was rescued but Jørgensen is now believed to have died.

Since the accident, several experts have said it was irresponsible of the teachers to sail as far out as they did at this time of year. The boat did not have a safety approval from the Danish Maritime Authority, and according to one commentator, the safety conditions on the boat were so bad that the parents ought to bring charges against the school. It has also emerged that the people on the boat were not wearing proper lifejackets.

Investigations are expected to take several weeks and could, according to the police, involve a reconstruction of the event.

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