Sun, Nov 25, 2007 - Page 7 News List

`Explorer' passengers get more thrill than expected

ADVENTURE Wearing bright orange suits to protect themselves against the cold, passengers disembarked on King George Island for a night at a military base

AP , SANTIAGO

The Explorer cruise ship is pictured sinking after it hit an object in Antarctic waters on Friday, some 880km southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city.

PHOTO: AP

A group of travelers were given a rare chance to spend the night in Antarctica after the cruise ship they were on struck an iceberg and sank hours later.

Its reinforced hull gashed and taking on water, the MS Explorer slipped beneath the waves on Friday evening, about 20 hours after its pre-dawn accident near the South Shetland Islands, the Chilean navy said.

Initial reports suggested only a small hole was punched into the hull, but the Argentine navy later said in a statement it observed "significant" damage.

Photos released by the Chilean navy throughout the day showed the ship lying nearly on its side, surrounded by floating blocks of ice.

Andrea Salas, an Argentine crewmember aboard the Explorer, was quoted as saying passengers felt an initial bump that seemed minor.

"Then we heard the captain announcing that there was another iceberg approaching us and that he was waiting ... for it to pass by," she told Radio Continental in Buenos Aires. "But that didn't happen" and there was a second, larger collision.

"They started pumping water out to keep the ship afloat" while the 154 passengers and crew members evacuated, said Salas, 38.

After bobbing for hours in subfreezing temperatures aboard lifeboats and inflatable rafts, the 154 passengers and crew members were rescued by a Norwegian cruise liner, the Nordnorge, that answered the Explorer's distress call.

Wearing bright orange suits to fend off the bitter temperatures, their faces reddened by a blustery storm that delayed their landing, the rescued finally disembarked Friday night on King George Island in Antarctica where they were housed on Chilean and Uruguayan military bases.

Authorities reported no injuries other than some complaints of mild hypothermia, none serious. Military officials hoped the weather would clear enough to airlift the survivors to Chile's mainland yesterday.

"The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for," said Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which runs environmentally oriented excursions and owns the stricken MS Explorer.

She said the 91 passengers hailed from more than a dozen countries, 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.

Nordnorge Captain Arnvid Hansen said his ship ferried the survivors to King George Island without incident.

"The rescue operation ran very smoothly," the 54-year-old captain said by shipboard telephone.

An Argentine rescue and command center received the first distress call at 12:30am on Friday amid reports the Explorer was taking on water despite efforts to use onboard pumps, said Captain Juan Pablo Panichini, an Argentine navy spokesman.

Throughout the day the ship listed heavily, its white superstructure and red hull starkly visible against the gray, choppy waters and overcast skies.

The Chilean navy eventually lost sight of the ship and wreckage indicated it had gone under completely, said a navy press officer who declined to be identified in, accordance with department policy.

"Our units in the area aren't seeing anything," he said by telephone. "The Explorer is not visible any longer."

A US woman said in an e-mail to family members that she witnessed the high-seas drama from aboard the Nordnorge.

"It is really scary to see a ship sinking out your porthole," said Jennifer Enders of Covina, California, who was traveling with her husband Robert. "The people were in the water in lifeboats for four hours and it is cold outside. We were asked to donate clothes to those coming in from the lifeboats."

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