CANBERRA, Australia – All 52 passengers trapped for more than a week on an icebound Russian research ship in the Antarctic were rescued Thursday when a Chinese helicopter swooped in and plucked them from the ice a dozen at a time.
The dramatic international rescue operation became possible once the weather finally cleared. Blinding snow, strong winds, fog and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.
The twin-rotor helicopter – its red and yellow colors contrasting starkly against the ice and snow – carried the scientists and tourists from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy to an Australian icebreaker, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue.
At one point, the passengers linked arms and stamped out a landing site in the snow next to the Russian ship for the helicopter, which is based on a Chinese icebreaker.
The eagerly anticipated rescue came after days of failed attempts to reach the vessel, which was trapped since Christmas Eve.
The icebreaker Aurora Australis will take the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania, a journey expected to last two weeks.
“I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home,” expedition leader Chris Turney told The Associated Press by satellite phone from the Antarctic.
Sydney resident Joanne Sim, a paying passenger, wept as she boarded the Australian icebreakers. She said the passengers had spent their time watching movies and playing games.
“It really has been an emotional roller coaster,” she told a The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reporter aboard the ship.
ASMA said the Aurora was on Friday cracking through heavy ice at 1,500 feet an hours and was expected to reach open sea late Friday.
The 22 crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy stayed with the icebound vessel, which is not in danger of sinking and has enough supplies on board to last for weeks. They will wait until the ice that surrounds the ship breaks up.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on Nov. 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.