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Tanker Crew Saves Russian Adrift in Arctic

Rescue: Merchant sailor is plucked from his barge after oil ship spots his ice-trapped, rudderless vessel.

November 19, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A Russian merchant seaman adrift for more than three weeks among Arctic ice floes and all but given up for dead was rescued Saturday after the crew of an oil tanker spotted his rudderless barge in the far northern wilderness of frozen water.

The barge Meridian, which operated from the port of Mys Shmidta on the remote Chukchi Peninsula, had broken from its mooring in the port of Enurmino during a fierce storm Oct. 28. Its single crewman, Ivan Shchur, had radioed regional rescue services with daily updates on his directionless journey in snow and wind, and on Thursday he warned that he was fast running out of fuel to heat the cabin of the 82-foot barge and keep open the lifesaving channel of communication.

Fierce winds and the daylight hours shortened by the approach of the Arctic winter undermined efforts by the Chukotka Civil Defense and Emergency Situations Department to locate the drifting barge and pluck Shchur from what many feared would become his Arctic tomb.

The seemingly hopeless situation threatened to serve as another reminder to Russians of the abysmal state of their rescue facilities.

In August, the Kursk submarine sank after an explosion and condemned the survivors among its 118 crewmen to a slow death from oxygen depletion as they remained trapped in the wrecked vessel under the Barents Sea.

But for Shchur, fate intervened where helicopters and radios failed. The Ventspils tanker of the Rimsko shipping company of Vladivostok spotted the vessel in distress early Saturday and immediately sought to notify authorities that it had found the 34-year-old sailor, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The Meridian had become trapped among ice floes congealing into the winter blanket that will soon make Russia's northern sea route impassable until spring, and the Ventspils was unable to get closer than about 220 yards, the news agency said.

But two officers from the tanker threw planks overboard and laid them end to end across the cracks in the ice floes to create a movable bridge that allowed them to bring Shchur safely to the tanker, the report said. The vessel then set off for the settlement of Lavrentiya, on the far northeastern tip of the peninsula that juts into the Bering Sea.

The report did not say when the Ventspils and its unexpected passenger would arrive, as it was unclear exactly how far from the port the rescue took place. Weather conditions remained treacherous, with howling winds and blowing ice crystals making any air operations impossible and probably hampering the tanker's progress toward land.

Just before the Ventspils informed the regional emergency services that it had sighted the Meridian, the Russian government had asked the U.S. Coast Guard to help find the lost barge, the Interfax news agency reported.

During the Kursk tragedy, the Russian leadership drew criticism for failing to ask for international assistance early enough to have any chance of reaching the doomed seamen.

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