A Sea King helicopter and four vessels were searching for survivors within hours of the Sleipner catamaran ferry sinking, 40 minutes after hitting rocks near Haugesund, west Norway shortly after 6pm.
Further rescue ships and helicopters raced to the scene north of Stavanger, located about 500 km (300 miles) west of the capital Oslo.
Despite a quick response by air and sea from the Norwegian rescue services, the freezing temperature of a bitter North Sea quickly claimed the lives of those who did not make it to special survival rafts in time.
Bjoerghild Eldoen, of the Norwegian Rescue Coordination Centre at Sola, said that 66 survivors and 10 dead had been accounted for from the 80 passengers and eight crew but last nights hopes were fading for the remaining 12. The temperature of the water was only between 5C and 8C (41F and 46F).
"If they (the missing victims) are in the water, it is not such a long time that they can last," said Emil Mohr, a physician at the Haugesund Hospital, one of several that was caring for survivors.
It is feared the death toll may still be higher as some of those plucked from the water are critically ill suffering from hypothermia. Survivors were taken to Haugesund hospital with injuries or suffering from cold, after the ship sank while travelling from the west coast port of Stavanger to Bergen.
The Sleipner is one of the most modern in the fleet of run by the Norwegian ferry company Hardanger Sunnhordlandske Dampskipsselskap. It is a fast catamaran which can carry up to 358 passengers. It only came into service in August and is equipped with the very latest survival equipment, a factor which helped the majority of those on board to survive. In Nordic mythology, Sleipner was the name of a sturdy eight-legged horse that acted as a steed for Odin, leader of the Norse gods.
The company said its ship had ran aground on rocks but was not able to offer an explanation as to why.
One of the survivors, Haavard Rossland, said last night that most of those on board did not know what was wrong when the boat suddenly stopped, and that there was little information from the crew.
"After a little while, the water started rushing in and then there was panic on board," he said in an interview with the Norwegian state radio network.
Sander Bull-Gjertsen, also of the rescue centre, said: "We got the report of it running aground at 19:09 (6.08pm) and the Flag Route Sleipner went down about 19:50 (6.50pm)."
Bjoerghild Eldoen said at least 10 ships, plus helicopters and small boats were in the area helping with the rescue. She said the vessel's bow was badly damaged when it ran aground and that it sank to the bottom after wind and waves pushed it off the rocks. It is not known what caused the ship to run aground.Reuse content