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Russia: Drifting Scientists Rescued In Arctic

Prague, 8 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian pilots mounted a successful operation on 6 March to rescue 12 scientists adrift in the Arctic Ocean.

The scientists were manning Russia's North Pole-32 floating research station, which was built on top of an Arctic ice floe last year to study the effects of climate change.

"Everything's been washed away. We couldn't do anything about it. I know that even [the scientists'] personal gear has been washed away."
But in a scene sounding like something out of a Hollywood movie, the station sank into the Arctic Ocean last week, when most of the ice floe that supported it cracked, initially rising to over 10 meters tall, before disintegrating and disappearing below water.

The scientists managed to seek shelter on the part of the ice floe that remained above water and sent out a distress signal via radio. Russian authorities dispatched an atomic icebreaker to the site from the port of Murmansk, but with weather worsening, they decided to attempt a helicopter rescue from Norway's Spitzbergen islands -- the closest inhabited territory to the ice floe.

Two helicopters -- an Mi-8 and a larger Mi-26 -- left Spitzbergen the morning on 6 March for the site, some 700 kilometers away.

By that afternoon, the two helicopters pinpointed the drifting scientists in the bleak Arctic landscape. Battling high winds and low temperatures, rescuers managed to load all 12 of the scientists aboard, including their two dogs, and set off on the return journey for Spitzbergen.

Artur Chilingarov, the deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma and a former polar explorer, took part in the rescue operation. He radioed back to headquarters saying all the scientists were in good health.

Unfortunately, the scientists' logs and other experiment equipment -- 10 months of work in total -- are not expected to have been salvaged. Speaking that morning at the start of the operation, one rescuer told journalists that only the scientists
themselves would be picked up.

"We are only going to rescue people because there is nothing else to pick up,” he said. “Everything's been washed away. We couldn't do anything about it. I know that even [the scientists'] personal gear has been washed away."

Rescuers said they hoped to be able to fly the scientists back to their families in St. Petersburg in time for International Women's Day today, which is celebrated as a holiday in Russia. Russia's 350 other polar explorers, serving at bases around the Arctic and Antarctic, spent the holiday more quietly, filling in absentee ballots for Russia's 14 March presidential elections, according to ITAR-TASS.

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