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ANT-XXIV/3 Weekly report No. 3


The appreciation of the victims by the chief scientist (photo: AWI)


Two crosses mark the location of the fatal accident near the Neumayer Station (photo: AWI)


Flaggs at half-mast on the Neumayer Station (photo: AWI)

Sunday 9th March 2008


This report has been delayed, as it has been very difficult to find the right words to describe the darkest hours in the 25 years of research on POLARSTERN.


Exactly a week ago we reached the Atka Bight in the early hours of Sunday morning, after we had left the operation area on the Greenwich meridian on Thursday. The weather was clearly more Antarctic-like compared to the previous week. After greyish and partly stormy days we were greeted with Sunday weather in the most literal sense of the word. Everybody was excited, after days of tiring station routine, to enjoy one day on the ice with all the impressions that renders Antarctic research so particularly fascinating. Despite the fact that the scientists had to take into account that they must assist with the loading and pumping work there should still be sufficient time to enjoy the stay on the ice.


However when we received at 8.30am, the news that a helicopter has crashed during the transport of personnel to the Neumayer Station the pleasure of anticipation and expectation altered to shock and grief. The rescue teams from the Neumayer III construction site and the Neumayer station quickly arrived at the crash site and had to report the deaths of the pilot Stefan Winter and of one of our colleagues from NIOS, Willem Polman. The three other passengers were seriously injured. Inspite of his injuries, the helicopter technician successed in removing the other injured people from the helicopter and radioed for help. We admire his cool head and bravery. The injured people were transported as quickly as possible with the second helicopter to the hospital on POLARSTERN where they were cared for. Fortunately it was possible, to quickly stabilise their condition, so that we do not have to mourn any more fatalities.


Immediately a crisis centre was established at AWI, which initiated a comprehensive support action and organised the information for the relatives and the public as well as the return transport for the injured and deceased people in an exemplary example international cooperation. Due to this effective cooperation, the injured people arrived on Thursday at the hospital in Cape Town and are now in good hands. Their condition considering the circumstances is good. They will return to their homes on Tuesday.


Here I ask for your understanding, because I will not name the injured as we want to assure that the families can receive their injured members home undisturbed by public attention.

For more detailed information on the accident and the consequent return I direct you to the AWI website.


On board we gathered together for a memorial on the helicopter deck on Monday to bid farewell to our two colleagues. Willem Polman and Stefan Winter lost their lives in the most terrible accident which ever happened in the 25 years of operation of POLARSTERN. With this ceremony we wanted to express our deepest sympathies to the relatives of the victims and comfort each other and express our highest appreciation of the two deceased to the whole world. The pain, the loss and the fear of the affected families is beyond belief; they are always in our thoughts. Those of us on board, and the relatives on land can be sure that we are not alone in our grief and pain. A flood of condolences arrived on board, at the AWI and at the NIOS from all around the world. With this report, we wish to express our thanks for the worldwide sympathy, which provided us with the strength to carry on and get through this difficult situation. As well we want to thank all those who have contributed so that the injured were discovered fast, rescued and taken care of and that our deceased colleagues could begin their last journey with dignity. In addition, I would like to thank all of those who ensured that the injured receive optimal care and will return from Cape Town to their home countries shortly. Only those who were at the location know what it was like for the crews of the station of Neumayer and the construction site and the crew members of POLARSTERN, pilots, medical personnel, meteorologists, logistical officers, and managers the service was done to limit the extent of this disaster.


Last Tuesday we once again bid farewell with a small group of the most closely affected at the place of the accident. The construction team had built and placed two crosses at the place of the accident. As we held a moment of silence in remembrance, the Basler BT-67 with the bodies on board flew overhead on their flight to Novolazarevskaja, from where the further transport to Cape Town occurred. As a farewell the pilots dipped their wings towards the crosses. It is difficult to imagine a more dignified farewell for a Polar researcher leaving for another world.


On Wednesday the injured were transported to Cape Town. In the early morning the situation seemed to be hopeless. There was continuous snowfall. The injured had to prove further patience. However, we then received the message of the meteorologists: it will improve and the Basler (plane) has departed from Novo. We admire the courage of the pilots and the skill of the meteorologists because it really improved. With snow still falling the transport by the Pisten bullies from the ship to the airfield began. With pain because of the separation and pleasure of the expectation to know that our friends would soon be in Cape Town and with their relatives we bid farewell to the injured. The pilots took advantage of the short period of better weather, landed, and got the injured on board and started in the last moments before the conditions would not permit the flight anymore.


When we were informed about the successful takeoff, we left the shelf ice edge and restarted research in Atka Bight. The irony of fate provided us with a sunny afternoon with glorious impressions that are typical for Antarctica during out travel across Atka Bight. It is strange to think that beauty and enchantment could so closely follow horror and grief. However, the decided will to continue our work in the spirit and in remembrance of our deceased colleagues, helped us, to overcome our pain and to return to the routine of research.


We know that there is no effort omitted to carry out our work in Polar areas with the highest safety standards. However, we have to recognise that absolute safety cannot be achieved.


Our stay at the Station was aimed at supply; we mainly had to supply fuel and food. Additionally, the valuable ice cores, which were drilled at the Kohnen Station, used material and garbage, came on board. Furthermore containers had to be rearranged, to provide space and material, which will be used during the forthcoming part of the cruise. For this purpose, freight containers had to be moved from the hatch onto the ice, the hatches then had to be opened and lab containers had to be offloaded. Once all these containers were on sledges on the ice, to remove them from the loading area, they were, together with the additional freight containers, then carried back and reloaded in a new sequence. A shunting yard on the shelf ice. Simultaneously, fuel was pumped into the tank containers. The good weather facilitated the work, however the tragic accident required an interruption.


After the end of the rescue and loading operation we were pleased to accept the invitation of the Station leader to visit the Neumayer Station and to get an impression of the work of the over wintering team. Patiently they explained the properties and function of the station. The farewell of the over wintering team occurred this time with a short break at the station.


The work on the Greenwich meridian was determined by an alternating sequence of casts with the oceanographic and the ultra clean CTD every 30 nautical miles. Slowly the hydrographic structure of the Weddell Gyre appeared in our observations, which we had crossed until the time of leaving to the Neumayer Station up to the foot area of Maud Rise at 65˚30’S. Despite the fact that the data requires comprehensive processing and calibration work, the quality of our instruments is so high, that we can even detect in the raw data that the temperature and the salinity of the Weddell Sea Bottom Water increased further during the last three years. This observation provides evidence of the evolution that we have followed since the mid 90s and raised the question even clearer: did global warming reach the deep sea or is it only a fluctuation on a timescale of decades. Because our Australian colleagues report that the salinity of the bottom water in the Ross Sea and off Adelie Land keeps on decreasing, this regional contrast requires an explanation. We hope to approach with the continuation of our work when we know the distribution of the water mass properties in the western Weddell Sea. There the Weddell Sea Bottom Water descends into the deep sea. Now we are back on the Greenwich meridian after a period of bad weather.


Our special greeting goes to the relatives of our deceased colleagues, our injured friends in Cape Town and their relatives and our families and friends who were worried about us, the many helpers and supporters and finally to all who showed with their expressions of sympathy to us that they were with their thoughts very near to us in these black hours. The mood is stable now, but the pain remains.


With heartfelt greetings from all on board.


Eberhard Fahrbach.


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