Dramatic rescue sees sick scientist plucked from Antarctic winter
Pilot skill, international co-operation – and a lot of luck – were to thank for the successful evacuation from a remote Antarctic outpost of an American researcher in apparent need of urgent surgery, an Australian official said yesterday.
The perilous evacuation in the middle of the Antarctic winter, with the continent just emerging from its six-month-long night and temperatures of minus 35C, was completed on Thursday with the arrival in New Zealand of an A319 Airbus carrying the member of a United States government expedition.
“The luck of having a weather window when we needed it was great,” said Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), which oversees Australian research posts. McMurdo station, a year-round research post, is managed by the United States.
“The sun doesn’t come over the horizon at this time of the year at McMurdo, but there are a couple of hours in the day where there’s twilight and sometimes the weather is calm and clear. It was like that yesterday,” said Mr Fleming.
Clearing Pegasus, a runway packed with snow on top of ice hundreds of metres thick, was the result of a joint effort by members of research teams from the United States, Australia and New Zealand, who used machinery to dump snow and then level it.
Preparations had begun for the first re-supply aircraft due at the end of the month, but the clearing had to be speeded up because of the emergency.
While the AAD makes regular landings at McMurdo during the southern summer, hostile winter weather makes landings precarious and they are usually only carried in an emergency.
“It’s a complex operation, but the guys down at McMurdo did a great job probably under difficult conditions to prepare that runway for the evacuation flight,” Mr Fleming said.
“The evacuation was completed in an hour and the flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, took five hours.”
Mr Fleming declined to give any details about the patient except to say the researcher was now getting medical care. He hailed the co-operation that made the rescue possible.
“One of the things about Antarctica is that it’s a unique continent where many nations come together,” he said. “Our neighbours are countries like the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and many other countries.
“It’s a very international space and people help out each other.”
The patient, whose identity has not been released, is in stable condition, but may need “immediate corrective surgery,” according to the US National Science Foundation, which runs the station.
A spokesperson said she could not give any additional details on the patient or the nature of the medical emergency, because of privacy laws.
“The facility at McMurdo is equivalent to an urgent- care centre in the US, and is not equipped for the type of procedure being contem- plated,” the foundation said in a statement.
It is winter in Antarctica and there is only a narrow window of light every day. The rescue team timed the landing to co- incide with the brief bright period.
The patient will be treated at a Christchurch hospital, the foundation said.
Flights to Antarctica are usually made only during the summer, though there have been midwinter medical evacuations before.
The most famous was the dramatic 1999 rescue of a female American doctor who was in need of breast cancer treatment.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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