(photo credit: AP)
A Canadian cruise ship struck submerged ice off Antarctica and began sinking Friday, but all 154 people on board, including Americans and Britons, took to lifeboats and were plucked to safety by another cruise liner.
Chilean navy vessels in the area lost sight of the stricken MS Explorer early Friday evening, hours after the pre-dawn accident near Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, and wreckage indicated it had gone under completely, according to a navy press officer who declined be identified in accordance with department policy.
"Our units in the area aren't seeing anything," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "The Explorer is not visible any longer."
The crew and 91 passengers were taken to a Chilean base and no injuries were reported, although they reportedly endured subfreezing temperatures for several hours in bobbing lifeboats before being picked up by a Norwegian vessel.
Argentina's coast guard said it had no immediate confirmation of the ship's sinking, and the Canada-based tour operator that owns the boat said it was trying to independently confirm the report.
Meanwhile authorities said all passengers and crew disembarked at Chilean and Uruguayan military bases on remote King George Island in Antarctica, after their landing was delayed for hours by a blustering storm.
Military officials were hoping the weather would clear enough to airlift the rescued to Chile's southernmost city of Punta Arenas on Saturday.
"This is not the best moment," air base commander Raul Jorquera said. "There is a lot of wind."
The Explorer struck submerged ice and began taking on water through its cracked hull early Friday, authorities said. Photos released by the Chilean navy showed the ship lying nearly on its side surrounded by floating blocks of ice.
But by then the ship's entire crew, and 91 passengers from more than a dozen nations - including 23 Britons, 17 Dutch, 13 Americans, 10 Canadians and 10 Australians - had been evacuated, according to the tour operator. The ship also carried nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54.
"The ship ran into some ice. It was submerged ice and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull so it began taking on water ... but quite slowly," said Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which owns the stricken MS Explorer. "The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever."
The group calmly abandoned ship when the captain's order came and pumps helped keep it stable for an orderly evacuation, Hayes said.
They were picked up by a passing Norwegian cruise ship, the Nordnorge, after several hours in hard-shell lifeboats and inflatable rafts.
Capt. Arnvid Hansen of the Nordnorge, said his ship ferried the passengers and crew to King George Island in Antarctic waters near southernmost South America without incident.
"The rescue operation ran very smoothly," the 54-year-old captain told The Associated Press by shipboard telephone from the vessel.
A Chilean military statement said 84 of those rescued were being housed at Chile's Presidente Eduardo Frei air force base, and the other 70 were at a smaller Uruguayan base nearby on King George Island.
G.A.P Adventures is a tour company that provides excursions with an environmental focus. 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.
Traveling to Antarctica is always risky, Hayes said.
"There is ice in the area. Obviously it's a hazard of the area. But it's highly unusual (that the ship would hit the ice). This has never happened to us," she said.
Last Feb. 1, the Nordnorge evacuated 294 passengers, including 119 Americans from a sister Norwegian cruise ship, the MS Nordkapp, which ran aground off a remote Antarctic island. The Nordkapp later pulled off the rocks under its own power and authorities said those passengers were never in danger.
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