Rescued passengers head for open Antarctic water

January 3, 2014

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — All 52 passengers rescued after being trapped for more than a week on an icebound Russian research ship in the Antarctic were aboard an Australian icebreaker slowly cracking through heavy sea ice Friday toward open water after their dramatic rescue by a Chinese helicopter.

A spot of clear weather allowed the multinational rescue operation after blinding snow, strong winds and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.

The twin-rotor helicopter — its red and yellow colors contrasting with the ice and snow — took seven hours to carry the scientists and tourists from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy to an Australian icebreaker, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue.

Earlier, the passengers had linked arms and stomped out a landing site in the snow next to the Russian ship for the helicopter, which is based on a Chinese icebreaker.

Helicopter pilot Jia Shuliang told China's official Xinhua News Agency that frequent weather changes and landing on ice were among the major challenges he faced in using a transport helicopter on a rescue operation for which it was ill-equipped.

In an interview before on the rescue, Jia told Xinhua he had no way of knowing whether the ice could withstand the helicopter's weight.

"The helicopter's takeoff and landing depends entirely on the pilot's naked eye. It can be very dangerous whenever visibility is bad so we have to wait patiently until the weather gets better," said the 55-year-old pilot with 36 years' flying experience.

The rescue came in the never-ending daylight of summer after days of failed attempts to reach the vessel, which was trapped since Christmas Eve.

The icebreaker Aurora Australis is expected to reach open sea later Friday and take two weeks to bring the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania.

"I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home," expedition leader Chris Turney told The Associated Press by satellite phone from the Antarctic.

Sydney resident Joanne Sim, a paying passenger, wept as she boarded the Australian icebreaker. She said the passengers had spent their time watching movies and playing games.

"It really has been an emotional rollercoaster," she told a reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper who is aboard the ship.

The 22 crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy stayed with the icebound vessel, which is not in any danger and has enough supplies on board to last for weeks. They will wait until the ice that surrounds the ship breaks up.

"It's quite uncertain how long it will take the Shokalskiy to be able to break through the ice," ASMA Emergency Response Division manager John Young said.

ASMA was continuing to monitor the Russian and Chinese ships. The Chinese ship was stationary in sea ice, but had not reported being stuck, Young said.

The cost of the rescue would be carried by the owners of the ships involved and their insurers, in accordance with international conventions on sea rescues, Young said.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on Nov. 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) south of Hobart, Tasmania.

Three icebreakers tried to try to crack their way through the ice surrounding the Russian ship but all failed, forced to retreat to open water by fierce winds and snow.

Young described the rescue as one of the remotest and most complex ever coordinated from Australia, which has rescue responsibility for part of Antarctic.

"The protracted nature of operations in Antarctica and the difficulty of getting good weather windows and getting the right ice conditions really make life very difficult, and in this particular case, the simple fact of having to move 52 people who are not really trained for that environment added complexity," Young said.

The Aurora's owner, P&O Maritime, said the 94-meter (308-foot) ship was capable of holding 116 passengers in addition to its crew of 24.

The scientific team on board the Russian vessel had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica.

Turney had hoped to continue the trip if an icebreaker managed to free the ship. Despite his disappointment over the expedition being cut short, he said his spirits remained high.

"I'm a bit sad it's ended this way," he said. "But we got lots and lots of great science done."

China has an interest in Antarctica, with the growing scientific power recently beginning construction on its fourth Antarctic research base.


Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Adam Schreck in Dubai, and Gillian Wong and researcher Zhao Liang in Bejing.