Plane lands at South Pole to rescue ailing doctor
PUNTA ARENAS, Chile (AP) – A small propeller plane fitted with skis landed safely Tuesday night at the South Pole, completing the first part of a dangerous mission to rescue an ailing American doctor.
Flying through the pitch black of the polar winter, the eight-seat Twin Otter concluded its 10-hour flight from Rothera base on the Antarctic peninsula across from Chile to Amundsen Scott-South Pole station at 8:02 p.m. EDT.
”They landed safely and without any problems” said Valerie Carroll, a spokeswoman for U.S.-based Raytheon Polar Services.
She said that the plane’s crew would remain at the pole for 10 hours to rest, refuel and assess Dr. Ronald S. Shemenski’s condition. They were expected to fly out early Wednesday morning.
Even though the howling winds and blinding snow had eased, temperatures at the South Pole dipped to minus 76 degrees, or 119 degrees below zero with wind chill. Forecasters said that visibility had improved to five miles with gusting winds and blowing snow.
It was the second dramatic rescue attempt in 24 hours. Earlier Tuesday, a New Zealand air force plane successfully evacuated 11 American staffers from a research station on the other side of the frozen continent.
Flights to the South Pole are normally halted from late February until November because of the extreme cold and darkness. But health emergencies at the isolated, frigid Antarctic outposts forced rescuers in both operations to make the dangerous flights.
The plane departed from Rothera at 10:34 a.m. EDT to retrieve Shemenski.
The Twin Otter and a companion plane had arrived at Rothera from Punta Arenas late last week. Blowing snow and low visibility postponed the flight by two days, but clear skies and improved conditions at the pole allowed the departure Tuesday, Carroll said.
The only physician among 50 researchers working at the polar station, the 59-year-old Shemenski recently suffered a gall bladder attack and has been diagnosed with the potentially life-threatening condition known as pancreatitis.
A registered nurse at the South Pole helped take ultrasound images that were sent back to doctors in the United States for diagnosis. Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas and can happen when a gallstone passes down the bile duct, irritating the gland.
Dr. Gerald Katz, Shemenski’s physician, said Shemenski needs surgery and that authorities wanted to evacuate him before harsher winter weather set it, making a future rescue impossible.
”There’s no doubt that the proper treatment for him is not available at the South Pole,” Katz said in a telephone interview from Englewood, Colo. ”In this case, most people would have considered treatment within three weeks after the condition was diagnosed.”
The rescue team included two pilots, an engineer, a nurse and a replacement physician for the polar station. The plane arrived in darkness with bone-chilling cold, a sheet of ice as a runway and no tower to guide the landing. Barrels of flaming debris were to be set up to light the runway.
A successful rescue would mark the second time in two years that a doctor has been plucked from the pole in a medical emergency. In October 1999, Dr. Jerri Nielsen – then the only physician at the Amundsen Scott-South Pole Station – was evacuated after she discovered a breast tumor that was diagnosed as cancerous.
Reached in North Carolina, Nielsen said her wait for the evacuation was very difficult. ”You wonder, ”Will it be tomorrow? Will it be the next day?”
She said she knew what Shemenski was going through.
”I think he must have a lot of mixed feelings. I know I had a lot of mixed feelings. He probably doesn’t want to leave them, but at the same time he knows he’s ill. I’m sure he’s also concerned about the people who are risking their lives to rescue him,” she said.
On the opposite coast from the Rothera base, rescuers were also forced to move quickly to evacuate four ill Americans at McMurdo Antarctic Base.
In a 15-hour round-trip journey from Christchurch, New Zealand, a C130 Hercules landed on McMurdo’s ice runway, spending just one hour on the ground to pick up the evacuees and refuel. Engines were kept running to prevent them freezing in the air, which was 22 degrees below zero. ”The weather was a little bit iffy … but we managed a quick change down on the ice,” pilot Nathan McDonald.
The sick Americans were joined on the flight by seven other U.S. staffers, who authorities said were returning because of ”family emergencies.” Two of the evacuees were suffering from ”critical conditions,” government research group Antarctica New Zealand said in a statement. The two were taken to a hospital in Christchurch, where their conditions were stable Tuesday night, the statement said without elaborating.
Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, 1 times the size of the United States. Nations including the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Argentina carry out experiments at bases dotted across the continent. They are regularly serviced by flights during the summer months but batten down the hatches and reduce staffing for the polar winter.
On the Net:
Raytheon Polar Services: http://www.polar.org
National Science Foundation: http://www.nsf.gov
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