Aircraft to assist in crew evacuation in Antarctic from burning ship

Picture taken by crew on board the American research vessel Nathaniel B Palmer as it left the site of the burning Jeong Woo 2 yesterday. Image: Johnny Pierce / Nathaniel B Palmer.
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A United States Airforce (USAF) C-17 Globemaster aircraft will leave Christchurch tonight to help recover seven crew injured in a fire on board the Korean fishing vessel Jeong Woo 2 in the Ross Sea early on Wednesday morning (NZDT).

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) is currently working with a range of agencies to help facilitate the recovery of the seven injured men from the Korean vessel back to New Zealand for hospital treatment.

RCCNZ Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator Greg Johnston said attempts were being made to get a team, including Vietnamese and Indonesian interpreters, on board the aircraft, which was already on a scheduled flight due to leave Christchurch about 9.30pm today.

'Weather permitting, it’s expected that the USAF aircraft will get to McMurdo base about 2am tomorrow (Friday), arriving about the same time as the American research vessel Nathaniel B Palmer, which is currently making her way through the ice with the seven injured crew on board.

'The rescue mission is, however, dependent on the weather and sea conditions, with fog at McMurdo currently causing poor visibility. However, a back up aircraft, a LC 130 Hercules based at McMurdo, is also available if the larger C17 aircraft can’t take off.'

Mr Johnston said once both the vessel and the aircraft had reached McMurdo, the injured crew would be transferred to the aircraft and flown back to Christchurch for treatment.

'All going well, the aircraft will depart McMurdo about 5am, arriving back in New Zealand around 10am, but there are still a number of factors that could cause this to be delayed.'

Two of the seven injured men have received extensive burns (50% and 30% respectively), but have recovered consciousness, and five others have received lighter burns injuries. The Nathaniel B Palmer has medical staff and facilities on board to assess the injured crew’s medical needs, with advice that they are currently stable. The ship’s progress will depend on ice and weather conditions. Three crew have died in the fire.

In the meantime, the 30 surviving crew are all on board the Jeong Woo 2’s sister ship, the Jeong Woo 3, with plans for the vessel to rendezvous with the Korean ice-breaker the Araon, which will collect the crew and take them back to Lyttleton, with the ship estimated to arrive on January 19.

Once safe to do so, the wreck of the Jeong Woo 2 will be towed by its sister ship to a position north of 60 degrees south when her future will be decided.

The 51 metre fishing vessel Jeong Woo 2 caught fire in the Ross Sea about 2000 nautical miles (3704 kilometres) southeast of New Zealand and about 600 kilometres north-northeast of McMurdo Base.

A number of vessels responded to the vessel’s distress call, issued in the early hours of Wednesday morning (NZDT). The call was picked up by another Korean fishing vessel, Hong Jin 707, and relayed to RCCNZ by the New Zealand vessel Antarctic Chieftain just before 3am (NZDT) on 11 January.

Maritime NZ further advises that:

In terms of the search and rescue operation, latest information is that:

RCCNZ is maintaining regular radio schedules with the crew of the Nathaniel B Palmer as it makes its way towards McMurdo base with the 7 injured crew on board.

Advice provided by the vessel’s captain is that its ETA at McMurdo is around 8am tomorrow (NZDT), weather and ice conditions permitting. A USAF C-17 Globemaster aircraft is scheduled to land at McMurdo at about 2am tomorrow and will evacuate the injured men back to Christchurch hospital as soon as possible once all are on board.

Three of the crew are reported as seriously injured, comprising 2 Vietnamese and 1 Indonesian national. These men are hospitalised on board, but are reportedly stable. All three are described as having 2nd and 3rd degree burns, with two having burns to 30% and 50% of their bodies respectively (note it is not yet confirmed which nationalities have which injuries).

The remaining 4 injured crew (2 Vietnamese and 2 Indonesian nationals) are reportedly in ‘good spirits’ and are up and moving around.

The 3 dead crewmen are Vietnamese nationals. It is not known whether the mens’ bodies will be able to be recovered at this stage, as it is currently too unsafe to go back on board. Surviving crew have confirmed that the men did not make it out of the vessel’s accommodation block after the fire started early on Wednesday morning (NZDT).

The Jeong Woo 2 is still ablaze and plans are for her sister ship, the Jeong Woo 3 to tow her outside Antarctic waters to minimize any potential effect on the Antarctic environment.

RCCNZ or MNZ has no involvement in determining the causes of the fire, which will be a matter for Korean maritime authorities.