Jan 2 2014
The long-awaited helicopter rescue of passengers on board a research ship trapped in Antarctic ice for more than a week has finally begun.
The attempt to airlift passengers was delayed earlier today after sea ice prevented a barge from reaching one of the rescue vessels.
But expedition spokesman Alvin Stone said a helicopter from a nearby Chinese icebreaker had now landed near the Akademik Shokalskiy and the operation to evacuate the 52 scientists and tourists on board had begun.
Expedition leader Chris Turney posted a video on his Twitter account showing the helicopter's arrival.
Hopes were raised hours earlier when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which is handling the operation, said weather conditions had improved and rescue flights were likely to begin.
But before the operation could begin, sea ice blocked the path of the barge that needed to get from the Australian vessel, the Aurora Australis, to the Snow Dragon.
Because the Aurora was not built to handle a helicopter landing, it appeared unlikely that the passengers would be rescued today, the maritime authority said.
But with the new turnaround in fortune, the helicopter is now expected to airlift passengers to Chinese icebreaker the Snow Dragon, and a barge will then ferry them to a nearby Australian vessel.
The rescue operation for the 74 passengers, comprising scientists, tourists and crew on the Russian ship has been plagued by one delay after another since the vessel became stuck on Christmas Eve.
Three icebreakers were initially dispatched to try to crack their way through the thick ice surrounding the ship, but all failed. The Aurora came within 12 miles of the ship on Monday, but fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.
The agency is using a helicopter on board the Snow Dragon - waiting at the edge of the ice pack with the Aurora - to rescue the 52 scientists and tourists, a dozen at a time, over five hours. All 22 crew members are expected to stay with their icebound vessel, which is not in danger.
The passengers will then be flown seven miles to the Chinese ship, from where they will be taken two miles by barge to the Australian icebreaker. They are then expected to travel to the Australian island state of Tasmania, arriving by mid-January.
When it appeared likely today's first rescue attempt would go ahead, Mr Turney posted a video on his Twitter account, blue sky visible behind him. "A stunning day," he said. "Hopefully we'll hear about the evacuation soon."
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on November 28, got stuck on Christmas Eve after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania. The ship is not in danger of sinking and has weeks' worth of supplies on board, but it cannot move.
The scientific team on board had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911-1913 voyage to Antarctica. Mr Turney had hoped to continue the trip if an icebreaker managed to free the ship.