Cruise ship sinks off Antarctica after hitting ice; all 154 on board rescued; Passengers, crew safe
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PUNTA ARENAS, Chile - Tourists from 14 nations - including a dozen Canadians - rescued off Antarctica when their cruise ship struck an iceberg and sank waited out bad weather Saturday at a remote military island base, as a Chilean air force plane flew from the South American mainland to airlift them out. MS Explorer, a small Canadian cruise ship carrying passengers who shelled out thousands of dollars to retrace the route of an ill-fated 20th century explorer, struck an iceberg before dawn Friday and sank 20 hours later in ice-strewn Antarctic waters. All 154 passengers and crew aboard, including Americans and Britons, survived hours of bobbing in lifeboats in subfreezing temperatures before their rescue by a Norwegian ship, which took them to Chilean and Uruguayan bases on King George Island in Antarctica.
Initial reports suggested only a small hole was punched into the hull, but the Argentine navy later said it received reports of "significant" damage. Photos released by the Chilean navy late Friday showed the ship lying nearly on its side, surrounded by floating blocks of ice with escape ladders dangling down its side. Jerry DeCosta, who was vacationing on the Explorer but did not identify his nationality before a call was cut short, told The Associated Press that survivors felt fortunate to have been rescued without a hitch. "Everybody got off the Explorer fine," he said, adding many passengers were not aware at first that the ship had hit ice and gashed its hull. "We didn't even know what was happening; yet it was all professional" he said of the rescue. "Everything was done right, the captain got everybody off and the weather was ideal. It was a fluke of nature and luckily we got out," he said of calm skies and seas, a rarity in Antarctica where a storm blew up soon after the rescue. "We sent out a distress call and people came to help."
On Saturday, an air force Hercules C130 transport took off from this southernmost Chilean city for the Antarctic base some 1,100 kilometres southward. Authorities said it would bring back the first 78 survivors later in the day, the first of at least two flights planned. "We hope to conclude the evacuation in the early hours Sunday," said Eugenia Mancilla, a Chilean government spokeswoman. The 154 passengers and crew members were rescued by a Norwegian cruise liner, the Nordnorge, that answered the Explorer's distress call early Friday. "They were cold after being six hours in the lifeboats. We got them hot drinks and food and the right clothes," said Capt. Arnvid Hansen, of the Nordnorge. Wearing bright orange suits to fend off bitter temperatures, their faces reddened by a blustery storm that delayed their landing, the rescued travelers disembarked Friday night from the Nordnorge on King George Island, where they slept at Chilean and Uruguayan military bases.
Authorities reported no injuries other than some complaints of mild hypothermia. Andrea Salas, an Argentine crew member aboard the Explorer, said that passengers did not panic when the ship struck ice. "The captain told us there was water coming in through a hole. We grabbed our main things and our coats and we got into the boats almost immediately," she said. "There wasn't any panic at all and luckily, everything went well. Now, after all the anxiety has passed, we can just say, 'Hey we're still alive.' Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which runs environmentally oriented excursions and owns the stricken MS Explorer, said all passengers were accounted for. She said 91 passengers hailed from more than a dozen nations, including 24 Britons, 17 Dutch, 14 Americans, 12 Canadians and 10 Australians. The ship also carried nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54. The Explorer was on a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, letting passengers observe penguins, whales and other wildlife while getting briefings from experts on the region, according to G.A.P. Operators had boasted that the Explorer - a ship only 75 metres in length with a shallow bottom and ice-hardened hull - could go places other vessels could not.