WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fire raged out of control on a fishing ship near Antarctica as the crew tried to fight back the flames early Wednesday. Three fishermen died, and two of the 37 rescued had severe burns.
Rescue coordinators said help given by a nearby sister ship and another fishing vessel likely prevented a worse outcome. Two unconscious, severely burned men were hoisted off the flaming ship by crane, and five crew members suffered moderate burns.
The South Korean ship was continuing to burn and appeared to be sinking, said Mike Roberts, the senior search and rescue officer with the Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand.
The Jung Woo 2, got into trouble in the Ross Sea about 370 miles (595 kilometers) north of the U.S. McMurdo Station Antarctic base.
The fire appears to have started in the living quarters of the 167-foot (51-meter) ship and spread quickly to the engine room and fish-processing plant, Roberts said. It raged out of control, with the crew's firefighting teams unable to halt its progress.
The distress call was sent before 3 a.m. New Zealand time, he said. Vessels working in Antarctica often operate in shifts around the clock thanks to long daylight hours in the southern summer. It's not known how many people were sleeping when the fire struck.
The injured crew have been transferred to a U.S. research vessel, the rescue center said in a statement Wednesday night. The crew on the Nathaniel B. Palmer will treat their injuries, then put the seamen ashore at McMurdo Base for more extensive help and possible evacuation to New Zealand, Roberts said. New Zealand authorities are helping to coordinate the rescue but are not at the scene.
The three men who were killed never made it out of their quarters, Roberts said. He said 25 men were able to get onto a life raft but the fire burned through the ship's other life raft, forcing 12 men to stay aboard until help arrived.
The sister ship Jung Woo 3 and another Korean vessel, the Hong Jin 707, arrived within about three hours, Roberts said.
"We're pretty fortunate that we were able to get 37 out of 40 to safety," Roberts said. "It was a really catastrophic event."
The two men who were unconscious at the time of the rescue have regained consciousness, Roberts said, raising hopes they will survive their extensive burns.
Roberts said the cause of the fire remains unknown.
Australian records show the Jung Woo 2 is owned by the Sunwoo Corporation and is licensed to fish for Chilean sea bass, crab and other bottom-dwelling fish. The ship was built in 1985 in Japan and is registered in Busan, South Korea.
The Jung Woo 2 is the second fishing vessel in less than a month to encounter trouble during the Antarctic summer fishing season.
On Dec. 16, the Russian vessel Sparta hit underwater ice that tore a 1-foot (30 centimeter) hole in the hull and left the 32 crew stranded for 10 days, until rescue boats could get to it and make temporary repairs. The Sparta limped into a New Zealand port earlier this week.