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Monday 5 December 2016

South Pole workers arrive in Chile after daring rescue

Published 23/06/2016 | 06:11

Two ambulances enter the airport to pick up two workers from the US South Pole Amundsen-Scott in Punta Arenas, Chile (AP)
Two ambulances enter the airport to pick up two workers from the US South Pole Amundsen-Scott in Punta Arenas, Chile (AP)

A plane carrying two sick US workers has arrived safely in Chile after a daring rescue mission to a remote South Pole research station.

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Following a stop for a few hours at a British station on the edge of Antarctica, the two workers were flown to the southernmost Chilean city of Punta Arenas, the National Science Foundation said.

In a hectic two days of flying, the rescue team flew a 3,000-mile round trip from the British station Rothera to pick up the workers at the US Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole.

They arrived back at Rothera on Wednesday afternoon, said Peter West, spokesman for the foundation, which runs the US station. Then the two workers then boarded a second Canadian-owned Twin Otter plane that took off for Punta Arenas.

"From Punta Arenas, the two patients aboard will be transported to a medical facility that can provide a level of care that is not available at Amundsen-Scott," the National Science Foundation said.

The National Science Foundation has not identified the sick workers or their conditions, citing medical privacy. They both work for contractor Lockheed Martin.

At Rothera, the temperature was a balmy minus 2.5C on Wednesday afternoon - which is toasty compared to the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole where it was minus 60C in the morning.

Before they left, there were 48 people - 39 men and nine women - at the station for the winter.

Normally planes do not go to the polar outpost from February to October because of the dangers of flying in the pitch-dark and cold.

The first day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere was Monday - meaning the sun will not rise at the South Pole until the first day of spring in September.

Steve Barnet, who works with a University of Wisconsin astronomy team at the polar station but is in the US now, lauded the rescue crew.

He said: "The courage of the pilots to make the flight in extremely harsh conditions is incredible and inspiring."

The extreme cold affects a lot of things on planes, including fuel, which needs to be warmed before take-off, as well as batteries and hydraulics, according to Mr West. The Twin Otter can fly in temperatures as low as minus 75C, he said.

"The air and Antarctica are unforgiving environments and punishes any slackness very hard," said Tim Stockings, operations director for the British Antarctic Survey.

"If you are complacent it will bite you."

There have been three emergency evacuations from the Amundsen-Scott station since 1999. The station has a doctor, a physician's assistant and is connected to doctors in the US for consultations - but sometimes workers need medical care that cannot be provided at the South Pole.

The 1999 flight, which was carried out in Antarctic spring with slightly better conditions, rescued the station's doctor, Jerri Nielsen, who had breast cancer and had been treating herself. Further rescues took place in 2001 and 2003, both for gallbladder problems.

Scientists have had a station at the South Pole since 1956. It is involved in astronomy, physics and environmental research, with telescopes, seismographs and instruments to monitor the atmosphere. The foundation runs two other research stations in Antarctica.

Press Association

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