Soviet icebreaker attempts dramatic Antarctic rescue mission. Hampered by polar night and thick ice, the rescue ship faces slow going

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The 24-hour darkness of the polar night, temperatures of -22 degrees F., and gale-force winds are plaguing a dramatic Soviet mission to rescue 53 people aboard a ship trapped in Antarctic ice. The Mikhail Somov, a ship used to deliver supplies and relief crews to the Soviet Union's scientific bases on the frozen continent, has been stuck in pack ice since late March although the first the Soviet public heard of its difficulties was a report by the official Tass news agency on June 4.

That report was issued to coincide with the announcement of the rescue mission of the icebreaker Vladivostok, which only recently reached the edge of the 840 miles of ice that stretch between it and the Somov in the Amundsen Sea.

Even the most optimistic forecast is that the icebreaker will not break a channel through the ice in less than a month, although that will be well before supplies on board the Somov reach a critically low level.

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``Conditions are unusual and quite serious,'' Artur Chillingarov, the polar researcher who is heading the rescue mission, told reporters in Wellington, New Zealand, the icebreaker's last landfall before the icecap.

The Vladivostok set out from the Soviet Union's Far Eastern port of the same name on June 10 carrying a large helicopter with navigational equipment able to cope with polar magnetic disturbances.

Recent reports from a Tass correspondent aboard the icebreaker tell of a harrowing voyage south from New Zealand with heavy swells lashing the ship and sweeping supplies overboard.

The Vladivostok has reportedly plowed through several hundred miles of thin ice with relative ease. It is expected to slow down when it encounters thicker ice. Already it has run into sections where the ice is three to six feet thick. In places the ice trapping Mikhail Somov is up to 12 feet thick.

Heavy snowstorms and the polar night, with only three to four hours of semi-daylight in any day, are preventing aerial reconnaissance by helicopter to find any gaps in the ice which would enable faster progress.

Although this is the first time a Soviet icebreaker has tackled Antarctic ice in midwinter, the Vladivostok is a veteran of similar conditions at, literally, the other end of the world.

Each autumn teams of Soviet icebreakers, spearheaded by the atomic-powered Leonid Brezhnev, punch channels through the ice of the Arctic Ocean around the north of Siberia to keep open as long as possible this main supply route to the isolated settlements of that desolate part of the country.

In the autumn of both 1983 and 1984 similar dramas unfolded as more and more ships -- oil tankers, freighters, container barges -- became immobilized in the ice and had to be led out by icebreakers.

But the most dramatic incident of all, and the one most revered and remembered by the man in the street in Moscow, occurred in 1934, when the freighter Chelyushkin was trapped, then crushed by the ice, leaving her crew camped out in tents on the floes.

A small group of aviators, flying light aircraft in dangerous sorties, rescued all of them and became the first to receive the ``hero of the Soviet Union'' award, the country's top medal for bravery.

The event so fired popular imagination that stamps were issued last year commemorating its 50th anniversary.

Western analysts in Moscow say the publicity being given the present rescue attempt -- publicity that is small by Western standards but remarkable in a land where most air crashes go unreported -- has been allowed in anticipation of a Chelyushkin-style success.

No figures are available for the cost of the rescue mission. The present plan is that if the icebreaker finds itself unable to reach the Somov within the next month, most of the 53 crew still on board will be airlifted off.

The ship's 77 passengers were airlifted a month ago, leaving the crew with fresh supplies to wait until the Antarctic spring frees the vessel some time in October or November. The icebreaker would remain nearby as a safety precaution.

Since becoming ice-bound, the Somov has drifted with the ice itself. The nearest points of habitation are now the Soviet ``Russkaya'' research station it left 31/2 months ago, 500 miles to the east, and United States and New Zealand stations, which are 1,900 miles away at McMurdo Sound.

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