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A Moment’s Carelessness Can Be Fatal in Antarctica

March 20, 1995

MOUNT EREBUS, Antarctica (AP) _ The distance between life and death is measured in seconds and feet in Antarctica.

Steve Dunbar, a rescue team member, still vividly remembers a day in December 1993 when he was aboard an airplane descending toward an expanse of ice that he knew was pocked with crevasses hidden under fresh snow.

But Dunbar, wedged in the hold of the propeller-driven Twin Otter, could not communicate with the pilots to warn them.

``I piled up all the sleeping bags and soft equipment around me,″ ready for a crash, he said.

To his relief, the plane coasted safely to a halt. The pilot and copilot then watched with dismay as Dunbar and his rescue team colleagues roped themselves together and to the plane as they stepped onto the snow field.

``About 40 meters (yards) off the nose of the aircraft, we fell in a three-foot crevasse,″ he said. If the plane had taxied another second or so, it would have hit the crevasse and broken up.

The people on the plane were lucky; the Norwegian adventurer they had flown 1,200 miles from McMurdo Station to search for was not.

Jostein Helgestad, part of an expedition to recover the tent and sledge that Roald Amundsen left at the South Pole in 1911, had broken through the snow and plunged 130 feet down a hidden crevasse.

The rescue team worked its way to the crevasse and Dunbar went down after him.

``It was dark,″ said Dunbar, who used a miner’s headlamp to find his way. ``When a person falls in, they go down an animal-sized hole, so that’s all the light there was.″

Dunbar got within three feet of Helgestad’s body before he was thwarted by the narrowing of the crevasse walls. It was only about 10 inches across at that point.

``When I would inhale completely, I would be stuck. I could inhale and hold myself in position,″ Dunbar said.

Helgestad’s body could not be recovered.

``That was the highest risk rescue we have attempted,″ said Erick Chiang, the National Science Foundation official in charge of the three U.S. scientific stations in Antarctica.

Dunbar and his colleagues, based at McMurdo, handle about one serious rescue effort each year, as well as several false alarms and minor incidents. Most of the predicaments people get into are preventable.

``The biggest thing that gets people is complacency,″ Dunbar said. ``When the weather is good, it can be very pleasant. And you can be a half mile from McMurdo″ _ then a blizzard sets in. ``You look down and you can’t see your feet.″

McMurdo’s rescue crew runs survival school sessions for visitors and new staff on the slopes of Mount Erebus, an active volcano that dominates Ross Island, home of McMurdo and New Zealand’s Scott Base.

It is an appropriate place to deliver the message about how horribly wrong things can go.

Higher up the slope, buried beneath drifting snow, are traces of the wreckage of an Air New Zealand DC-10 jumbo jet that smashed into the side of the volcano in a blizzard Nov. 28, 1979. The 257 victims lost their lives due to the miscalibration of an automatic navigation instrument.

Survival school teaches how to make a snow shelter if stranded; how to anchor tents in the snow so they don’t blow away; how to fuel and light the cooking stoves that are part of the emergency survival kit. Those skills can keep a person alive for several days, even in a blizzard, until help arrives.

The erratic weather can still overcome even the most experienced people, Dunbar said in recounting his grimmest rescue attempt.

In October 1992, a U.S. Navy helicopter picked up three New Zealanders at Cape Byrd and on the flight back ran into a whiteout _ blowing snow and clouds so thick that the horizon, the sky, even the ground blur into an indistinguishable white fog.

The craft crashed on a glacier, killing the three New Zealanders, but the pilot and copilot survived.

A search aircraft could not see the crash site through the fog, but picked up a faint transmission from a walkie-talkie.

Dunbar and a rescue crew were put down a half-mile away, the closest safe landing zone. They hiked in until they smelled fuel, finding the survivors six hours after the crash.

The rescue helicopter that lifted out the badly injured pilots almost crashed itself when it veered near the glacier face.

Dunbar and his crew faced still another ordeal before they could leave.

The leader of New Zealand’s Scott Base had to come to act as a coroner and photograph the bodies at the crash site, but the weather prevented another landing. The team camped for 2 1/2 days until he could get in.

``Every time you get up out of the tent, these bodies are laying there,″ Dunbar recalled, adding that all three victims had been good friends of the Americans.

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