Some of the British tourists rescued from the Antarctic cruise ship which sank after hitting an iceberg were airlifted from a remote island in the Southern Ocean last night.
A Hercules C130 transport aircraft, which had taken off from the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, was able to land on King George Island in the South Shetlands after the freezing weather improved. Some 22 Britons had been sheltering on the island with the other 132 tourists and crew from the stricken Explorer. Commander Reinaldo Neuling, the Chilean air force chief in Punta Arenas, said: "We hope for a very quick turnaround and, weather permitting, the aircraft with 80 people on board will arrive in Punta Arenas around 6pm. "If the weather is good, it will refuel and return immediately to pick up the remaining people. "They are in very good spirits and anxious to be rescued. Some slept last night on the floor of the gym in sleeping bags and others in bunk beds." All the tourists and crew were evacuated to open lifeboats when the 2,400-ton, 38-year-old Canadian owned ship hit an iceberg early on Friday and later sank, 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The passengers, aged 18 to 70 and packed into lifeboats with a week's supply of food, were picked up cold but unhurt several hours later by a Norwegian cruise liner and taken to military bases on King George Island. Half the group were staying in Chilean military accommodation while the remaining 77 were in Uruguayan army huts. Last night some of the rescued holidaymakers spoke of their ordeals. One, Brian Lee from Telford, Shropshire, said: "I think we have been really lucky." But he admitted that he had slept through the alarm being sounded - when his wife Gillian shook him awake, he thought it was because she wanted a cuddle. It also emerged that the crew of the ship - which was on a 19-day, £3,900-a-head "Spirit of Shackleton" cruise through the Drake Passage - were unaware that ice had punched a hole in the vessel until passengers raised the alarm. The revelations were made by crew members, who said two women narrowly escaped going overboard during the abandoning of the ship and admitted that they were all at far greater risk than previously disclosed because of a drifting iceberg. Speaking from King George Island, the Explorer's British ornithologist, Bob Flood, and American expedition leader, Brad Rhees, gave a graphic account of how three male passengers, sharing a cabin, were woken by water flooding in just before 1am on Friday. Mr Rhees, 60, a veteran Antarctic explorer, said: "The impact was on the starboard side, right next to a cabin being shared by three men. It was a fairly strong strike and in a short time their cabin had a metre of water in it. "The crew didn't know anything about it until the passengers pressed an emergency button. There was a quick response from the crew but they were the people who alerted us." Mr Flood, 52, a father of one from the Scilly Isles, added: "The bridge would have noticed we were listing from taking on water after about 45 minutes. "But as it was, the moment these three guys sounded the alarm the captain immediately called everyone to the muster station. But we didn't abandon ship for two hours. "The decision to evacuate was taken because we lost power in the engines and started drifting and there was a large iceberg to the starboard side. If the ice had built up, we would not have been able to lower the 50 per cent of the lifeboats that were on that side of the ship." Three people suffered mild hypothermia while they were in the life vessels, according to Mr Rhees. "The sea temperature was -2C and the air maybe plus two or three with a 15-knot wind. It was cold," he said. "If a storm had hit while we were in the boats, I can't say we would have had no fatalities." Mr Flood added that there were other dangers. Though there were other ships in the area, there was no way of knowing how soon they would be able to reach them. "There was a swell and a fair chop," he said, "and we were being wetted by sea spray. Most people remained calm but a couple cried and some were being seasick. I remained focused but I realised we might not make it and I got a bit sad about my family - my wife, Mandy, and my 26-year-old son, Ross. "But then I thought, 'If I do go in, it will only be a couple of minutes. It won't be a long, drawn-out death'." He said the most treacherous moment was transferring the passengers and crew to the rescue ship. "Because of the swell, there was movement between our boats and the Zodiacs the Norwegians were using to get us on board. There was a swift undercurrent so we didn't want anyone falling in. "One lady got dunked totally in the water but the rescuers managed to hold on to her. Another lady nearly went in when she was clinging to a Zodiac and it started going backwards (away from the lifeboat). We grabbed on to her and screamed, 'Let go! Let go!'" "When we were on the rescue ship, the weather quickly got worse. It was almost a whiteout blizzard blowing 30 to 40 knots. If we had been in that in the lifeboats, we wouldn't have made it. We had to wait six or seven hours before it was safe to land at the base on King George." Cath Robinson, 40, a GP from Norwich, told how thankful she was when she was rescued. "I lost everything I had with me - my mobile phone, my camera, my house keys," she said. "But the Norwegians were wonderful. They saved our lives." Gillian Plants, 40, of Manchester, said the evacuees passed the four-and-a-half-hour wait to be rescued by watching for whales. One Danish passenger, she said, proposed to his girlfriend in the lifeboat, having remembered to take the engagement ring with him when they were evacuated. Argentine guide Andrea Salas said she was in the ship's bar having a drink "when two passengers from the cabins below came in wet, shouting, 'There's water, there's water!' "We ran out to see what was happening - and there was this hole in the cabins. They were already quite flooded. "There were people suffering from hypothermia and it felt like an eternity until the boats came to the rescue." Initial reports suggested that the ship had suffered only a small hole to its hull but the Argentine navy has said in a statement that it observed "significant" damage. "It could have been a tragedy," said Pedro Thuay, of the Argentinean navy. "Instead it was a lucky misfortune." (Daily Mail) By Heather Briley – Punta Arenas - Chile