Last 77 survivors of Antarctic ship sinking airlifted to South America

  • Article by: ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Updated: November 26, 2007 - 6:26 AM

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile — The last group of survivors from the Antarctic cruise ship that struck an iceberg and slipped into the icy sea were flown back to the South American mainland Sunday.

A Chilean military transport plane ferried the final 77 of the 154 passengers and crew to Punta Arenas, Chile's southernmost city and a jumping-off point for Antarctica travel. All had been rescued from the sinking MS Explorer on Friday.

"Everything is fine, very fine," said Argentine crew member Andrea Salas as she climbed from the plane. Sunday's airlift was composed of 11 passengers and 65 crew members, most of whom declined to comment on advice from lawyers.

A Chilean air force plane flew the ship's first 77 survivors back from the King George Island air base, 660 miles south of this remote tip of South America, on Saturday.

The MS Explorer, operated by the Canadian tour company G.A.P. Adventures, smashed into submerged sea ice in Antarctic waters before dawn on Friday. The ship took on water and sank about 15 hours later.

All on board made it into lifeboats and were rescued by a passing Norwegian cruise ship.

On Sunday, many still toted the life vests they wore while shivering for hours in the bobbing rafts while awaiting rescue. Some carried plastic bags with a few belongings, heading for medical checkups and visits with consular officials from a host of countries on hand to help them get home.

The Explorer's captain, Bengt Wiman, walked past shouting journalists and gave a thumbs-up sign to crowds who welcomed the plane.

The ship's 91 passengers hailed from more than a dozen nations, including 24 Britons, 17 Dutch, 14 Americans, 12 Canadians and 10 Australians. Nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54 were also aboard the ship, operators said.

The Explorer had been on a 19-day tour of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, bringing passengers to observe penguins, whales and other wildlife.

Survivors on Saturday told reporters they were overjoyed to have been swiftly rescued.

While bobbing in a life raft on the frigid sea, Danish citizen, Jan Heikel, 42, and his girlfriend Mette Larsen, 29, said they decided to speed up wedding plans.

"There were some very frightening moments but the crew was very professional and the captain very good and had everything under control," Heikel said.

The Explorer sank in 3,300 feet of water in an area about 40 nautical miles from Chile's Presidente Eduardo Frei air force base.

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