Cruise Ship Passengers Wait Out Bad Weather to Return Home After Vessel Hits Iceberg, Sinks

Tourists from 14 nations rescued off Antarctica when their cruise ship struck and iceberg and sank were waiting out bad weather Saturday at a remote Chilean military base, before they can be airlifted out to the South American mainland.

Ms Explorer, a small Canadian cruise ship carrying passengers who shelled out thousands of dollars to retrace the route of a 20th century explorer, struck an iceberg before dawn Friday and sank later in icy Antarctic waters.

All 154 passengers and crew aboard, including Americans and Britons, survived hours of bobbing in lifeboats on ice-strewn Antarctic waters before their rescue by a Norwegian ship, which took them to Chilean and Uruguayan bases on King George Island in Antarctica.

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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 Friday showed the ship lying nearly on its side, surrounded by floating blocks of ice.

Andrea Salas, an Argentine crew member aboard the Explorer, told The Associated Press that passengers did not panic when the ship struck ice.

"The captain told us there was water coming in through a hole. We grabbed our main things and our coats and we got into the boats almost immediately," she said. "There wasn't any panic at all and luckily, everything went well. Now, after all the anxiety has passed, we can just say, 'Hey we're still alive."'

The 154 passengers and crew members were rescued by a Norwegian cruise liner, the Nordnorge, that answered the Explorer's distress call.

"They were cold after being six hours in the lifeboats. We got them hot drinks and food and the right clothes," Capt. Arnvid Hansen, of the Nordnorge, told the AP.

Wearing bright orange suits to fend off bitter temperatures, their faces reddened by a blustery storm that delayed their landing, the rescued disembarked Friday night from the Nordnorge on King George Island 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.

Argentine authorities said the drama began with a distress call hours before dawn Friday. For hours Friday, the ship listed heavily, its white superstructure and red hull starkly visible against choppy waters and overcast skies. The Chilean navy eventually said it lost sight of the ship and wreckage, indicating it had gone under completely about 20 hours later.

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 (about 246 feet) in length with a shallow bottom and ice-hardened hull — could go places other vessels could not.