"It is a very harsh part of the world down there," said Gerald Hagemann. "Unless you are in a protected environment aboard a ship or in the right gear, your chances of survival are practically zero."
Hagemann is in charge of the rescue of the Magdalena Oldendorff, an Antarctic research ship that is surrounded by ice less than 1,500 miles from the South Pole. The ship was trying to bring 79 Russian scientists home from a year's work on the polar climate, but on June 11 it called for help.
The ship is just off the Antarctic coast, due south of Africa. Forty miles of ice block its path to the safety of the Atlantic Ocean.
Bottom of the World
"Great God! This is an awful place," wrote Robert Falcon Scott, the leader of the second expedition to reach the South Pole in 1912. A team led by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten Scott by only a month. Scott and his four colleagues died on the way back to safety, victims of starvation, blizzards and temperatures 40 degrees below zero.
The Magdalena Oldendorff is hardly in such danger. The temperature at last report was 7 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with winds of about 30 miles an hour. The people on board — 107 in all, counting the scientists and the ship's mostly-German crew of 28 — have about a month's worth of food and other supplies.
But fearful of the unpredictable Antarctic winter, they have already begun rationing. Though rescue should take two weeks, nobody trusts the weather.
Hagemann's company has hurriedly launched a rescue ship from Cape Town, South Africa, with two military helicopters on board. A second ship, an icebreaker, is expected from Argentina.
The rescue ships will try to cut through the ice to reach the Magdalena Oldendorff — and if that fails, they will send their helicopters back and forth to pick up the stranded passengers. It is dangerous work, in a place that only gets three hours of daylight this time of year.
"Any nighttime flying is a risky operation, especially in these harsh conditions with that cold," said Hagemann.
Good Shape but Not Good Spirits
Hagemann made a call by satellite to the ice pilot of the Magdalena Oldendorff, Capt. Ewald Brune.
"And the atmosphere on board, what's it like?" he asked.
"It's normal," answered Brune, "it's a little bit depressed, but everything is OK."
Raymond Smith says he knows the feeling. He is an Antarctic researcher from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He was icebound for a week last September, aboard an American ship, which finally freed itself.
"They told us the nearest icebreaker big enough to help us was in Seattle," said Smith. "If there are any accidents there isn't any help near."
The people of the Magdalena Oldendorff understand that. They are 2,500 miles from the nearest habitable place.