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Passengers of Doomed Cruise Ship Reach Chile With Vivid Accounts

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 25, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, Nov. 24 -- Nearly 40 hours after abandoning a sinking cruise ship in icy waters near Antarctica, the passengers of the M/S Explorer were flown to Chile on Saturday night to begin their journeys home.

Poor wind conditions had delayed their flights aboard military aircraft, but a plane carrying 80 of the passengers arrived in the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas at 7:30 p.m. A second flight with the remaining passengers was expected to arrive later in the evening.

While they waited for their flights, some of the 154 passengers and crew members were able to briefly use satellite telephones, providing vivid snapshots of an adventure vacation that none of them is likely to forget.

"Well, he didn't sound very good, actually," Mandy Flood, of the Scilly Isles in Britain, said after speaking to her husband, Bob, a bird-watching guide who was aboard the Explorer. "Obviously, the rescue boats took quite a while to get to them, so they were all pretty cold and exhausted."

The trouble started at the end of the 12th day of a 19-day cruise. Some of the passengers were snoozing in their cabins and others were sharing drinks at the bar as the ship neared the South Shetland Islands. About 11:30 p.m., Capt. Bengt Wiman said he felt a buckle that did not feel quite right.

"At first I thought that we had collided with a whale," said Wiman, who spoke Saturday via satellite phone with news media in his home country of Sweden.

But a short time later, a crew member informed him that water was entering the ship. The crew quickly found the leak, a hole slightly larger than a fist that was made by submerged ice, he said.

Andrea Salas, an Argentine crew member, said she was in the bar with colleagues and passengers when someone came in and yelled, "There's water!" After being briefed by Wiman, the passengers noticed that the ship began to list toward its starboard side as water filled the decks below.

The electricity eventually cut out, and the passengers boarded lifeboats and rafts about 3 a.m. Few showed signs of worry, and some even cracked jokes about the Titanic, Flood said.

"We were surprised because it was peaceful and there was a very good demeanor among the passengers, who didn't panic and who were very controlled the whole time," Salas said in a satellite phone conversation, according to the Buenos Aires newspaper Clar¿n.

But some of the passengers grew cold and weary after spending hours in rafts and lifeboats until being rescued by the Nordnorge, a Norwegian cruise liner.

Jennifer Enders of Covina, Calif., was traveling aboard the Nordnorge with her husband, Robert. She described the scene for family members in an e-mail that was obtained by the Associated Press on Saturday.

"It is really scary to see a ship sinking out your porthole," Enders wrote. "The people were in the water in lifeboats for 4 hours and it is cold outside. We were asked to donate clothes to those coming in from the lifeboats."

Officials said that six passengers were treated for mild hypothermia, the Chilean newspaper La Tercera reported Saturday.

A spokesman for G.A.P. Adventures, which owned the Explorer, said Saturday that upon landing in Punta Arenas, a city at the southern tip of mainland Chile, the passengers would be given the option of joining another cruise or flying home.

The company reported that the passenger list included 24 British nationals, 17 Dutch, 14 Americans, 12 Canadians, 10 Australians, four Swiss, four Irish, three Danes, two Argentines, two Belgians, two from Hong Kong and single passengers from China, France, Germany, Japan, Colombia and Sweden. The majority of the crew were believed to be from the Philippines, the company stated.

Passengers had each paid thousands of dollars for the chance to retrace routes taken by famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. After departing from the Argentine city of Ushuaia on Nov. 11, they had visited the Falkland Islands and South Georgia island. They had planned to visit the Danco Coast of Antarctica and the Drake Passage before returning to Ushuaia next week.

The Explorer was a pioneer of Antarctic tourism and in 1969 was the first ship built specifically for such cruises. The region's cruise industry has grown exponentially in recent years, with about 37,000 people expected to visit the frozen continent this season, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

In January, a Norwegian cruise ship ran aground in the same area and 370 people aboard were rescued. The incident prompted criticism from environmentalists concerned that the 50-plus vessels conducting tours in the area could contaminate the region with spilled oil and chemicals.

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