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ODU Faculty, Students on Antarctic Research Cruise Help Rescue Crew from Burning Korean Fishing Vessel

A group of researchers from Old Dominion University found themselves in the middle of a high-seas drama when their ship helped perform a rescue from a South Korean fishing vessel that caught fire in the Ross Sea near Antarctica early on the morning of Jan. 11.

The fire killed three crew members on the vessel Jung Woo 2, which got into trouble about 370 miles north of the U.S. Antarctic research center McMurdo Station. Two of the 37 crew members rescued had severe burns.

The ODU researchers, including oceanography professor John Klinck and other university oceanography faculty members and students, are on a six-week journey, led by the university's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography (CCPO), aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer.

The trip, over the holidays and into January, is designed to focus on the accumulation of small quantities of iron in surface waters of the Ross Sea off Antarctica. The iron content drives the amount of phytoplankton in the waters, which controls the amount of carbon dioxide that the tiny plants take out of the atmosphere. However, the ODU researchers interrupted the science part of the cruise to get some of the injured seamen to McMurdo Station, where they could be evacuated to New Zealand.

Walker Smith, a scientist from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, relayed the following report about the rescue to Eileen Hofmann, an ODU professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences who is part of the research team, but not on the cruise.

"At 0300 we got a mayday call, and it was decided that we should respond and go to this Korean fishing vessel. It was on fire and the fire was out of control. We just got here and took on seven injured. Turns out the crew was largely Vietnamese. All other crew were transferred to another Korean ship. Three dead; seven injured, two seriously with 2nd and 3rd degree burns on their faces, hands and feet. Those seven are here for transit to McMurdo and flight out. Twenty-six hours to get to McMurdo. The ship is still burning out of control; pretty amazing to see. There are lots of rumors - Russians on board, apparently in charge … I'll keep you updated as I learn more. In looking at the injured, I don't think they will die, but they clearly need transfusions and IVs. All in all, pretty wild."

The work of the ODU research team, which is supported by awards totaling $700,000 from the National Science Foundation, reflects how closely scientists are watching Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and anticipated climate warming and related environmental changes.

The ODU researchers have been blogging about their experience on the ship, accounts that are likely to get much more lively now. Klinck, the director of the university's CCPO, is also producing a blog, although one aimed more at scientists. His reports are at http://rosssea2011.blogspot.com.

Stephanie Hathcock, a doctoral student in science education at ODU, is writing a blog about the expedition as science outreach for laymen, and her work can be found at http://www.steminaction.org/blog.

The other members of the ODU delegation are Peter Sedwick, associate professor of OEAS, Pierre St. Laurent, a postdoctoral researcher, Suriyan Saamul, a Ph.D. student, both with CCPO, oceanography graduate students Diego Narvaez and Candace Wall, and research associate Bettina Sohst.

The research team made it to Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of Chile, on Dec. 20 and departed for Antarctic waters on Christmas Eve. The journey from Punta Arenas to the Ross Sea takes about two weeks.

The fire appears to have started in the living quarters of the 167-foot (51-meter) ship and spread quickly to the engine room and fish-processing plant, Mike Roberts, the senior search and rescue officer with the Rescue Coordination Center of New Zealand, told The Associated Press.

The distress call was sent before 3 a.m. New Zealand time, he said. Vessels working near Antarctica often operate in shifts around the clock thanks to long daylight hours in the southern summer. It's not known how many people were sleeping when the fire broke out.

The fire raged out of control, with the crew's firefighting teams unable to halt its progress.

To read the story about the ODU delegation's trip to Antarctic seas, please see: http://www.odu.edu/ao/news/index.php?todo=details&todo=details&id=30787

This article was posted on: January 11, 2012

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