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Antarctic crew awaits rescue in better spirits

Magdalena Oldendorff  

From Ryan Chilcote

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (CNN) -- The leader of an icebound Russian scientific expedition says his crew's spirits are improving despite being stranded in Antarctic ice, low on food and now, out of smokes.

The German freighter Magdalena Oldendorff was carrying 107 passengers and crew when it got stuck in ice May 30 off the Antarctic coast. The earliest any rescue vessel is expected to reach the area is June 24.

"Food consumption is minimal but sufficient -- especially now that we're just waiting and filing reports," expedition commander Vyacheslav Martyanov told CNN in an interview by satellite telephone.

"As for the major inconveniences, I would say a lot of people suffer from the absence of tobacco, total absence of cigarettes aboard the ship. ... But we're not having any major discomfort at the moment."

Martyanov said the mood among the 74 scientists, five aviators and 28 crew members was "sad and gruesome" after the ship got stuck. But since then, when a rescue effort got under way, "the mood of the crew has been improving."

CNN's Ryan Chilcote says rescuers face increasing difficulties in reaching a Russian ship stuck in the ice of the Antarctic (June 19)

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"The majority of the crew aboard the ship have been away from home for more than a year now -- a year and a half, actually," he said.

"After having worked in Antarctica for this long period of time, they were planning to go home and see their families. They had plans for the summer season, and their plans were ruined. So that was a major setback for them."

The Magdalena Oldendorff had dropped off supplies and changed crews at two Russian research stations before getting stuck in pack ice, said Vladimir Kuchen, the expedition's supervisor at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Kuchen said the ship's engine has been turned off. Heat was being provided by a generator and food was being rationed, Martyanov said.

"We don't have sugar, butter, cereals. We distribute two small pieces of bread for each person daily. Meals are really minimal, but we still feed people three times a day," he said.

"If there are no positive developments until, say, June 25, we will have to further decrease food consumption and maybe switch to two meals a day."

Argentina and South Africa are planning a rescue attempt using helicopters to ferry the stranded passengers and crew to icebreakers en route to the area.

But the South African ship has encountered bad weather on its way to the Antarctic, while the Argentine ship has not left port due to a dispute over the cost of the attempt.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is considering sending a Russian icebreaker to Antarctica, but a Russian expedition would need a month to reach the stranded vessel.

Martyanov said any rescue attempt would be difficult. Temperatures are typically about 20 degrees below zero Celsius (4 below zero Fahrenheit), and there is only about 90 minutes of twilight each day at that latitude.

"Given that we don't have any helicopter fuel here, [that] means that helicopters should be fueled up for return flights. That's more than 500 kilometers both ways," Martyanov said.

"When you add the fact that we have Arctic night here and very bad weather conditions on the ocean -- snow, wind, and all that -- it'll be a mission impossible for the pilots," he said.

"If the Argentinian icebreaker doesn't move in, the South African vessel will probably not be able to help us."




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