Rescue hopes dim for 107 on ship stuck in Antarctica

Icebreaker, helicopters slowly make their way to crew, Russian scientists

June 27, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Trapped aboard a cargo ship in the howling depths of an Antarctic winter, scores of Russian scientists and technicians saw hopes of a quick rescue vanish yesterday.

"Of course I am worried," said Vyacheslav Martyanov, leader of the scientists on the Magdalena Oldendorff, in an interview over a satellite telephone. "Because the distance is long, the daylight is short and the weather is bad."

The ship lies snug against a 13-story wall of ice in a bay off the Antarctic coast, waiting as efforts to reach it falter.

A South African research vessel trying to carry helicopters within range encountered unexpectedly thick sea ice. Now the ship, the Agulhas, probably won't get close enough for the helicopters to fly directly to and from the vessel, hampering efforts to reach the ship with desperately needed supplies.

The 107 passengers and crew members aboard the German-owned Magdalena have been rationing food, eating one meal a day to stretch their provisions another three weeks. "Food is the emergency problem for us," Martyanov said.

The ship also has only enough fuel for heat and light for two months.

The 74 Russians on the ship, who work for Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg, had spent more than a year working in remote outposts in Antarctica and were headed home by way of Cape Town, South Africa.

Officials at the institute in St. Petersburg said the rescue helicopters might be able to reach the vessel by stopping at a South African research base to refuel. Or they could wait for an Argentine icebreaker, now heading south, to reach a point close enough to serve as a staging platform.

Either way, the longer relief flights would be riskier and more likely to be canceled by bad weather or a shortage of daylight. There is danger for the Magdalena, danger for the Agulhas and danger for the powerful icebreaker.

The Argentine icebreaker, Almirante Irizar, left port Tuesday, as the relatives of crew members stood on shore and wept. The ship, laden with supplies to last until October in case it too gets trapped, has never sailed so far into the Antarctic ice fields in the depths of winter. The Magdalena's owners reportedly are paying Argentina $1 million for the icebreaker's services.

During the austral winter, temperatures off the Antarctic coast can plunge to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and hurricane-force winds rake the continent. The sun never rises above the horizon. Even in calm weather, rescue pilots aboard the Agulhas will have only two hours of twilight to reach the ship and return.

Yesterday, the Magdalena was hit by a blizzard fueled by winds of 55 mph. The thermometer read minus 15 degrees, Martyanov said, and visibility was zero.

The old Soviet-era ship, now owned by the German Oldendorff line, was built for Arctic service, but its engines are now incapable of cutting through moderately thick ice.

The Argentine icebreaker, 5,000 miles away, is expected to travel 10 days to reach a position near the Magdalena, which is moored to a 130-foot-tall cliff of ice in Muskegbukta Bay off the Antarctic coast. The site is about 50 miles from South Africa's Sanae research station.

The bay is carved out of a towering ice shelf - one of many enormous glaciers that flow off the Antarctic continent. Martyanov said the bay protects the ship from massive icebergs that could crush the 18,000-ton Magdalena like an eggshell.

The Magdalena's plight, with ice thickening near it, is reminiscent of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1914-1916 aboard the Endurance. The British explorer and his crew spent a winter stranded in Antarctica, after their ship was caught and crushed in the ice in the Weddell Sea.

Today, satellite phones allow the trapped ship to tell the world its whereabouts, but the ice is as treacherous as ever.

This may be the worst crisis for a Russian polar expedition since 1996, when the U.S. polar research vessel Nathan B. Palmer sailed to Russia's Mirny Station to deliver three tons of food and save Russian scientists from starvation.

The Magdalena was chartered by the Russians to rotate scientists and staff from Mirny and Novolazarevskaya stations, both on Antarctica's coast. Besides the Russians, the ship carries 33 crew members, including Germans, Filipinos, Moldovans and Indians.

The trouble started soon after the ship left Novolazarevskaya in late May. Large areas of thick sea ice were forming rapidly. For more than a week, Russian officials say, the vessel sailed west, looking for a passage between these massive floes, some of which were 36 miles in diameter.

"The captain thought he could make it without help," said Vladimir Kuchin, of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. "We expressed our worry to the owners of the vessel. But there was no reaction on the other side."

The ship reportedly called for help June 11. The captain retreated to Muskegbukta Bay, and rescue operations were launched.

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