Antarctic Rescue: All 52 Passengers Stuck Nine Days In Antarctic Ice Saved By Chinese Helicopter

By Ben Wolford on January 2, 2014 9:42 AM EST

Antarctica Rescue
Still image taken from video shows rescue workers making their way from a helicopter to Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been trapped in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve, in East Antarctica. Photo: Reuters

A scientific expedition to Antarctica stalled on Christmas Eve when its ship, the MV Akademic Shokalskiy, was stuck in a sheet of ice. At least two attempts by icebreakers failed to reach them. Finally on Thursday, after nine days of waiting, a Chinese rescue helicopter pulled all 52 passengers to safety, leaving the 22 crew members aboard to care for the ship.

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The double-rotor chopper swooped in for 12 passengers at a time, flying them to a nearby Australian ship, which had been unable to crush through thick ice. A storm on Dec. 24 heaved a wall of pack ice against the MV Akademic Shokalskiy about a month after its voyage began in New Zealand. The group that consisted of researchers, journalists, and tourists calls itself The Spirit of Mawson after Douglas Mawson, whose early 20th century trek over eastern Antarctica they set out to retrace. "In spite of a century of discovery, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean remain a unique place to monitor the health of our planet," the expedition said.

They had accomplished much of their mission, locating the hut that was Mawson's salvation on his journey. But the blizzard stalled their progress. By Monday, after nearby Chinese and Australian icebreakers could not make the rescue, the Chinese rescue ship prepared to send in its helicopter, the Xueying, or Snow Eagle. "The first flight will transport all 12 staff of the emergency relief working group to the planned landing area to investigate thickness of the ice and pave planks to prevent possible sinking or rollovering," Jia Shuliang, captain of the Xueying, told Xinhua state news agency.

When they determined the ice to be safe, the Xueying flew several trips back and forth from the landing zone to the Australian ship, the Aurora Australis. Expedition leader Chris Turney tweeted video of the second rescue takeoff. "We've made it to the Aurora Australis safe & sound. A huge thanks to the Chinese & @AusAntarctic for all their hard work!" Turney wrote.

The people aboard the Akademic Shokalskiy were never in any danger; the ship had plenty of food and water, and the electricity was working. Video footage they posted on YouTube showed people chatting happily, reading books, and using laptops in a dining cabin. Turney had said they were keeping themselves occupied watching movies and even accomplished some scientific research, drilling through the ice to observe sea life underneath.

Other recent trips to Antarctica, however, have ended in disaster. Twenty-two people aboard a South Korean vessel died in 2010 when their ship, the Insung, sunk off the coast. The ship's owner speculated that it had either struck an iceberg or had been toppled by a strong wave. Then in 2012, a South Korean fishing boat with 40 on board caught fire. As they abandoned ship, an American scientific vessel came to the rescue. "We had science happening," a U.S. Antarctic Program contractor told the Antarctic Sun. "We had instruments over the stern, and so we immediately pulled them out of the water and steamed over to the position given to us by the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center." Three died before they arrived.

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