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Originally published January 1, 2014 at 10:01 PM | Page modified January 2, 2014 at 3:41 PM

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Copter lands near ship stuck in Antarctic ice

Before the helicopter rescue operation could begin, sea ice had blocked the path of the barge that needed to make it from the Australian vessel, the Aurora Australis, to the Snow Dragon.

The Associated Press

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CANBERRA, Australia — A long-awaited rescue of passengers on board a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for more than a week began Thursday, with a helicopter that is expected to fly passengers to a nearby vessel managing to land next to the ship, expedition leaders said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre, which is overseeing the rescue, had said earlier Thursday that sea ice was preventing a needed rescue barge from reaching one of the vessels, which would likely delay the entire operation.

But late Thursday, a helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon landed next to the ship, expedition spokesman Alvin Stone said.

“The rescue’s under way, so (there’s) a little bit of joy,” Stone said.

The maritime authority said it was trying to confirm reports that the evacuation had begun.

Expedition leader Chris Turney posted video of the helicopter’s arrival on his Twitter account, writing: “The Chinese helicopter has arrived @ the Shokalskiy. It’s 100% we’re off! A huge thanks to all.”

The helicopter will carry the 52 scientists and tourists on board a dozen at a time to the Snow Dragon, in an operation expected to take five hours. A barge will then ferry them 2 miles to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis. All 22 crew members are expected 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 long-awaited rescue came after days of failed attempts to get the passengers off the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which got stuck on Christmas Eve. 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 thick ice surrounding the ship, but all failed. The Aurora came within 12 miles of the ship Monday, but winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on Nov. 28, got stuck Christmas Eve after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 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 the Akademik Shokalskiy had been re-creating Australian explorer and geologist Douglas Mawson’s voyage to Antarctica from 1911 to 1913.

The ship anchored at the edge of pack ice Dec. 18, and Turney and others spent a day journeying about 45 miles across the ice to Mawson’s hut.

The ship then headed east through open water.

But as it began heading north, it “ran afoul of very strong winds” that pushed the loose ice in its way, Turney said. “It pegged us in,” he said, and the frozen expanse quickly grew as more ice piled up.

Even though it is summer in the Antarctic, waiting for the ice to break up on its own is not an option, Turney said, because of the risk that the ship could drift along with the ice and collide with one of several icebergs in the area, which are drifting independently of the pack ice.

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.

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