Canadian cruise ship sinks off Antarctica after hitting iceberg

Passengers of a small Canadian cruise ship paid a small fortune to retrace the route of a 20th century explorer. But their ship struck an iceberg and sank hours later in the icy waters off Antarctica.

Its reinforced hull gashed and taking on water, the MS Explorer slipped beneath the waves Friday evening, about 20 hours after its pre-dawn accident near the South Shetland Islands, the Chilean navy said.

Initial reports suggested only a small hole was punched into the hull, but the Argentine navy later said in a statement it observed "significant" damage. Photos released by the Chilean navy throughout the day showed the ship lying nearly on its side, surrounded by floating blocks of ice.

Andrea Salas, an Argentine crew member aboard the Explorer, was quoted as saying passengers felt an initial bump that seemed minor.

"Then we heard the captain announcing that there was another iceberg approaching us and that he was waiting ... for it to pass by," she told Radio Continental in Buenos Aires. "But that didn't happen," and there was a second, larger collision.

"They started pumping water out to keep the ship afloat" while the 154 passengers and crew members evacuated, said Salas, 38.

After bobbing for hours in subfreezing temperatures aboard lifeboats and inflatable rafts, the 154 passengers and crew members were rescued by a Norwegian cruise liner, the Nordnorge, that answered the Explorer's distress call.

Wearing bright orange suits to fend off the bitter temperatures, their faces reddened by a blustery storm that delayed their landing, the rescued finally disembarked Friday night on King George Island in Antarctica where they were housed on Chilean and Uruguayan military bases.

Authorities reported no injuries other than some complaints of mild hypothermia, none serious. Military officials hoped the weather would clear enough to airlift the survivors to Chile's mainland Saturday.

"The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for," said Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which runs environmentally oriented excursions and owns the stricken MS Explorer.

She said the 91 passengers hailed from more than a dozen nations, including 24 Britons, 17 Dutch, 14 Americans, 12 Canadians and 10 Australians. The ship also carried nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54.

Nordnorge Capt. Arnvid Hansen said his ship ferried the survivors to King George Island without incident.

"The rescue operation ran very smoothly," the 54-year-old captain told The Associated Press by shipboard telephone.

An Argentine rescue and command center received the first distress call at 12:30 a.m. EST Friday from the Explorer amid reports it was taking on water despite efforts to use onboard pumps, said Capt. Juan Pablo Panichini, an Argentine navy spokesman.

Throughout the day the ship listed heavily, its white superstructure and red hull starkly visible against the gray, choppy waters and overcast skies. The Chilean navy eventually lost sight of the ship and wreckage indicated it had gone under completely,according to a navy press officer who declined to be identified in accordance with department policy.

"Our units in the area aren't seeing anything," he told the AP by telephone. "The Explorer is not visible any longer."

A U.S. woman said in an e-mail to family members that she witnessed the high-seas drama from aboard the Nordnorge.

"It is really scary to see a ship sinking out your porthole," said Jennifer Enders of Covina , California , who was traveling with her husband Robert. "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."

The accident also left a stain of oil covering 3,600 square meters (3,938 square yards) of sea, according to the Chilean navy.

The Explorer was on a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands , letting passengers observe penguins, whales and other wildlife while getting briefings from experts on the region, according to G.A.P.

The tour operator said the voyage was inspired by the Antarctic expeditions of Ernest Shackleton, an adventurer who made repeated forays there in the early 1900s. Shackleton died of a heart attack aboard his ship while trying to circumnavigate the icy continent by sea in 1922.

Operators had boasted that the Explorer - a ship only 75 meters (82 yards) in length with a shallow bottom and ice-hardened hull - could go places other vessels could not.

Nicknamed "The Little Red Ship," it alternated seasons between Antarctic and Arctic waters and was the first cruiser to take passengers to Antarctica and through the Northwest Passage , which connects the Pacific and Atlantic below the North Pole, according to G.A.P. Adventure's Web site.

The polar cruiser boasted a shipboard library, lecture hall, gym and sauna, as well as a crew of veteran sailors, bird experts, biologists and naturalists who would brief passengers on adventures along the way.

"We strive to show you the real world, by taking you off the beaten track to the heart of the destination and to meet the locals who call it home," the operator's Web site declared.

Even so, traveling to Antarctica is always risky, Hayes said Friday.

"There is ice in the area. Obviously it's a hazard," she said. "But it's highly unusual (that the ship would hit the ice). This has never happened to us."

Hayes called media reports that the ship had an imperfect safety record exaggerated, and said it was fully certified for sailing in October.

"They were minor issues that were dealt with," Hayes said. "The ship does not have a spotty safety record."

An Argentine navy statement said the Explorer was about 475 nautical miles southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city and a jumping-off point for cruise ships and supply vessels for Antarctica . Seas were calm and winds light at the time of the accident, officials said.

"It could have been a tragedy," said Pedro Thuay, the head of Argentina's navy in Usuahia. "Instead it was a lucky misfortune."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova