CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - A long-awaited rescue of passengers on board a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for more than a week finally got underway on Thursday, with a helicopter scooping up the first group of passengers and flying them to a nearby vessel, expedition leaders said.
The helicopter was originally going to airlift the passengers to a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, with a barge then ferrying them to an Australian vessel. But sea ice was preventing a barge from reaching the Snow Dragon, and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Coordination Centre, which is overseeing the rescue, said the operation would consequently be delayed.
A last-minute change in plans allowed the rescue to go ahead. The 52 scientists and tourists on board were instead being flown to an ice floe next to the Australian icebreaker the Aurora Australis, and then taken by a small boat to the Australian ship, expedition leader Chris Turney said. The maritime authority confirmed the first group arrived at the Aurora Thursday evening.
"I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home," Turney told The Associated Press by satellite phone from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalski, which has been stuck in the ice since Christmas Eve.
The helicopter will carry the passengers a dozen at a time in an operation expected to take five hours. All 22 crew members are planning to stay with their icebound vessel, which is not in danger.
The Aurora will carry the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania, arriving by mid-January.
The eagerly anticipated rescue came after days of failed attempts to reach the ship. Blinding snow, strong winds, fog and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.
Three icebreakers were initially dispatched to try and crack their way through the ice surrounding the vessel, but all failed. The Aurora came within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the ship Monday, but fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on Nov. 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) south of Hobart, Tasmania. The ship isn't in danger of sinking and has weeks' worth of supplies on board, but it cannot move.
The scientific team on board had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica. Turney had hoped to continue the trip if an icebreaker managed to free the ship.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.