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Russia: Rescue Mission Evacuates Scientists From Ship Trapped In Antarctic Ice

By Margot Buff

South Africa and Argentina are involved in an unusual collaboration. Each country has dispatched a ship to help rescue a group of Russian scientists whose boat is stuck in ice off the Antarctic coast. The operation is a risky one, with helicopters working to transfer the Russian crew from one boat to another under difficult conditions. RFE/RL spoke to the mission's coordinators in South Africa to find out how the rescue mission is progressing.

Prague, 28 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-one Russian scientists who have spent more than a year in the Antarctic are one step closer to home. Two helicopters took off yesterday from a South African ship and flew some 350 kilometers to pick up the scientists from the German ship the "Magdalena Oldendorff," which is trapped by ice.

Taking advantage of the few hours of Antarctic daylight, the helicopters landed on the ship and unloaded some 400 kilograms of food and supplies. Then the aircraft took on the 21 scientists and returned safely.

Another 86 people are still on board the trapped ship, distributing their new supplies of food and hoping the next evacuation attempt will be as successful.

The "Magdalena" began its mission in May, setting out to pick up scientists from Russia's Novolazarevskaya Antarctic base. Some had been there as long as 18 months, performing experiments through the sunless winter. Many had been hoping to leave the continent before the worst part of another Antarctic winter set in.

After picking up the scientists at Novolazarevskaya, the ship headed toward Cape Town, South Africa, but soon encountered a belt of ice it could not cross. It risked getting stuck in other ice floes if it tried to bypass the main sheet. On 11 June, the ship turned back toward Antarctica, taking shelter in Muskegbutka Bay.

The ship sent a distress call to the Antarctic Logistics Center International, or ALCI, which called on the South African government to send assistance. A private ship was contracted to send to the site.

Tanya Hacker of SMIT Marine South Africa said the company swiftly assembled a rescue crew who knew what to expect in the extreme south. "We had to call up a lot of crew who obviously are used to those conditions and worked there previously. They came away from their leave, came on board the 'S.A. Agulhas,' and the whole team was mobilized within four days," Hacker said.

The ice-strengthened "Agulhas" could approach the "Magdalena" and help evacuate passengers before supplies ran out, but a genuine icebreaker would be needed to free the trapped ship. The ALCI called on the services of the only icebreaker currently in the Southern Hemisphere, Argentina's "Almirante Irizar." The ship began its voyage to the "Magdalena" on 25 June.

Gerald Hagemann of the ALCI said both countries got involved simply because of the capacity for quick response. "We are the closest to the current position of the 'Magdalena Oldendorff.' Cape Town is an ideal gateway for the Antarctic. We've got the infrastructure here, and Argentina happened to have a vessel available with ice-breaking capability, and they, again, are the closest. If we had to bring a vessel from Russia or from Germany or something like that, it would have taken us roughly 25 days to get them to Cape Town, and then another 10 or 15 days to get them down there," Hagemann said.

On 25 June, the South African ship arrived within flying distance of the "Magdalena," but couldn't get any closer because of thick ice. The South African crew had a choice. They could wait for the Argentine icebreaker to arrive 10 days later and plow a route to the "Magdalena." Or they could start evacuating passengers using helicopters, weather permitting, in the three hours of daylight they had.

The situation on the "Magdalena" was not yet critical. The 107 people on board were eating one meal a day and had enough to last until the icebreaker's arrival. But yesterday's weather conditions were favorable, and the "Agulhas" decided to dispatch its helicopters to deliver food and return some of the trapped scientists. "I think the decision was merely one to assist the food situation, although it's not at all critical at this stage, especially with us delivering a substantial amount of food today, and tomorrow probably double that amount. It's just, 'Yeah!' We wanted to boost morale, to show them that we are doing the best we can," Hagemann said.

Hagemann said the crew on the "Agulhas" is motivated by its participation in such a difficult Antarctic mission. "The people on the 'Agulhas' are very motivated, and they feel it is a real challenge, never been done before, and on the 'Oldendorff,' they are also very positive. They know that help is now coming. You know, you can imagine, they haven't had cigarettes now for the last, I don't know how many weeks," Hagemann said.

Two more helicopter flights are planned today to bring back about 40 more scientists. But the weather is expected to worsen tomorrow and may prevent further flights. If so, the rest of the passengers on the "Magdalena" would have to await the arrival of the Argentine icebreaker.

The 28 crew members of the "Magdalena" will stay on their ship whether the flights take place or not, waiting for their chance to return their vessel to a safe port.