Rescue plane lands safely after South Pole rescue with ailing American
PUNTA ARENAS, Chile (AP) – A rescue plane completed the perilous first leg of flight home from the South Pole on Wednesday evening, carrying an ailing American doctor across Antarctica before landing at a base near the coast.
The eight-seat propeller plane carrying Dr. Ronald Shemenski, who is suffering from a gall bladder ailment, flew from the U.S. base at the pole to Rothera research station in just over eight hours.
”They’ve landed safely,” said Valerie Carroll, a spokeswoman for U.S.-based Raytheon Polar Services that organized the airlift.
Shemenski was able to walk under his own power, said Tom Yelvington, a Raytheon program manger. ”Leaving the pole, he was pretty good,” he said.
The flight was an especially dangerous leg of the riskiest rescue ever at the South Pole with the pilots of the twin-engine plane braving snow, cold approaching minus 65, high winds and pitch-black polar darkness.
Rothera is a British research station located just across the Drake Passage from Punta Arenas, Chile. Carroll said the crew would rest overnight and aim for an early Thursday afternoon departure to Punta Arenas.
The plane carrying Shemenski took off at 12:47 p.m. EDT from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and then bucked along on Antarctic winds faster than expected on the harrowing flight.
The plane passed its halfway point ahead of schedule, then later landed without incident on a well-lit runway at Rothera.
Flights to Antarctica are normally halted from late February until November because of the winter’s extreme cold and darkness.
But rescuers were forced to risk the evacuation because of fears that Shemenski’s health could deteriorate after worse weather makes the South Pole unreachable. Shemenski was the sole physician among 50 researchers working at the pole.
The 59-year-old doctor recently suffered a gall bladder ailment and has been diagnosed with inflammation of the pancreas, a potentially life-threatening ailment that can occur when a gallstone passes down the bile duct.
On Tuesday, the Twin Otter propeller plane flew through the darkness to the South Pole, landing on a runway – a 2,000-foot strip of ice – lit up by the glow of burning debris in barrels.
Flying in the cramped plane packed with fuel and medical supplies were two pilots, an engineer and Dr. Betty Carlisle, Shemenski’s replacement.
The pilots rested overnight at the station and, after a delay of several hour, took off for Rothera.
Shemenski’s was the second dramatic rescue attempt in 24 hours. On Tuesday, a plane successfully evacuated 11 American staffers from McMurdo Antarctic Base on the Antarctic coast across from New Zealand. Little cloud cover and no wind made conditions good for that emergency airlift.
In October 1999, Dr. Jerri Nielsen was evacuated from the South Pole station after she discovered a breast tumor that was diagnosed as cancerous.
But Shemenski’s airlift is by far the riskiest, said Peter West, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation in Washington.
West said ”there are huge differences” between Shemenski and Nielsen’s rescues. Nielsen was taken out only two weeks before the polar summer, when conditions were turning less severe. ”Then it was getting warmer and lighter as they were moving into summer,” he said.
Antarctica has progressively been getting darker since last month, when the winter-long night began at the pole. By now, most of the continent is in utter darkness until October.
Reached in North Carolina, Nielsen told The Associated Press the base was well-equipped with medical supplies but doesn’t have the surgeons or staff for major surgery.
”We have the equipment to do surgery. But you don’t have a surgical suite, you don’t have an anesthesiologist and you don’t have someone to help you do a surgery,” Nielsen said. A replacement doctor for the station was crucial, she added.
”If he were in a position where he couldn’t care for people, there would be 50 people down there without a doctor,” said.
The doctor who worked at the pole between them, Dr. Robert Thompson, also was injured during his stint. After falling and injuring his back in November 1999, he chose to remain on base through the winter, despite increasing pain and what became a ruptured disk.
”When I first fell, I didn’t even think I was hurt, and then it kept getting worse,” Thompson recalled, calling it the ”most painful thing I ever went through.”
He marveled that three doctors in a row have suffered medical problems at the South Pole.
”I think it kind of proves that fact is stranger than fiction. You really couldn’t write a scenario like this,” Thompson said from Harrisburg, Pa. He chalked it all up to a ”run of bad luck” made all the more unfortunate because it happened in Antarctica.
”It’s probably one of the riskiest places to live in the world, but everybody that’s down there accepts those risks and wants to be there,” he said.
”The group down there is the most elite or the craziest bunch of people, depending on how you look at it,” he said. ”But it’s adventurous, and for most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
On the Net:
Raytheon Polar Services: http://www.polar.org
National Science Foundation: http://www.nsf.gov
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