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Three Canadians killed in Antarctica plane crash

  • Canadians killed antarctica 1.jpg

    A ceremony in memory of the aircrew at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.Blaise Kuo Tiong, NSF

  • Canadians killed antarctica.jpg

    A memorial ceremony for the aircrew at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.Blaise Kuo Tiong, NSF

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    A Twin Otter aircraft at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is shown in a 2006 photograph.Spencer Klein, NSF

Three Canadians were killed in Antarctica after their plane crashed last week into the freezing cold and hurricane force winds of the icy continent, the National Science Foundation confirmed Monday.

“On behalf of the U.S. National Science Foundation and all in the U.S. Antarctic Program, I wish to extend our profound sympathies to the families, friends, and colleagues of the three Kenn Borek Twin Otter crew, whose deaths in Antarctica while en route to support the Italian national Antarctic science program have recently been confirmed,” said Kelly K. Falkner, director of NSF's Division of Polar Programs, in a statement.

'Their contributions make possible hard won but vital advances in scientific knowledge that serve all of mankind.'

- Kelly K. Falkner, director of NSF's Division of Polar Programs

Officials with the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) and Antarctica New Zealand  decided to recall their search-and-rescue teams from the crash site Monday, saying it would be unsafe to disturb wreckage that is largely embedded in snow and ice on a steep mountain slope. The coming Antarctic winter and the generally poor weather conditions -- winds of up to 104 miles per hour blew through on Thursday and Friday -- made the rescue effort impossible.

“In many ways, their contributions make possible hard won but vital advances in scientific knowledge that serve all of mankind. Although everyone associated with the pursuit of science in Antarctica makes personal sacrifices to do so, very infrequently and sadly, some make the ultimate sacrifice,” Falkner said.

The propeller-driven Twin Otter was flying from a U.S. station near the pole to an Italian research base in Terra Nova Bay. Rescuers believe it crashed in the Queen Alexandra mountain range at an elevation of about 13,000 feet.

The plane’s emergency locator started transmitting late Wednesday about 420 miles north of the South Pole, but the weather has prevented search planes overhead from seeing the presumed crash site itself.

One man on the plane was identified as Bob Heath from the Northwest Territories, an experienced pilot in both the Antarctic and Arctic. Rescuers say the other two men were also part of the flight crew and that no passengers were aboard.

The plane was owned and operated by Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Calgary firm that charters aircraft to the U.S. Antarctic program. 

Antarctica has no permanent residents, but several thousand people live there in the Southern Hemisphere summer as a number of countries send scientists and other staff to research stations. The U.S. runs the largest program, with about 850 staff at its McMurdo Station and another 200 at its Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where the Canadians' flight originated.

Elsewhere in Antarctica, a team of U.S. scientists announced Sunday night that they had successfully drilled half a mile through the ice covering Lake Whillans, a subglacial expanse of water hidden deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

News wires contributed to this report.