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Plane With Dr. Shemenski Arrives in Chile

Aired April 26, 2001 - 14:52   ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: We have been waiting for a while. That was it, a flash of the red plane landing at Punta Arenas in Chile. If you're been following along here on CNN, you know this is the plane bringing Dr. Ronald Shemenski, who is the South Pole doctor to Chile. This is landing at Punta Arenas, which is actually the commercial airport closest to the Antarctic. And that is the closest place they could bring him into. The polar doctor, of course, been some suffering some illness and was being brought home in an emergency rescue effort.

CNN's Gary Tuchman is in Punta Arenas and he joins on the line now.

Gary, we saw a pretty quick flash of the red plane on the video phone. Tell us a little bit more about the landing today.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Four hours, 50 minutes, Joie, but the plane carrying Dr. Ronald Shemenski has arrived here in the southern most commercial airport in the world. We are in Punta Arenas, Chile, and this is the end of a long, risky, and courageous vigil. Evacuating this man, this doctor who fell ill at the South Pole station the United States has in the middle of Antarctica and taken him on a two-day ride from the United States station to a British station on the tip of Antarctica very close -- relatively close to South America and now arriving here in Chile.

Dr. Shemenski found out of that he had a problem, when he had a gallbladder attack. He was diagnosed with pancreatitis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Right now, he's in satisfactory shape. The fear was if he had stayed in South Pole for the rest of time he was supposed to be there, which was six more months, that starting about next week, there would be no physical way to get a plane in there to get him out. And if he was there that much longer, he could have serious complications from the pancreatitis.

So the decision was made to make the first ever rescue to the South Pole during the polar winter. The polar winter stretches from February to October. There have been rescues before. As a matter of fact, there have been two rescue of two different U.S. doctors in the past two years, but never before in the polar winter.

The plane you're looking at is called a twin otter. It is two engines. It uses propellers. It only has eight seats inside, and that is the plane that flew into the harshest weather on earth right now on the South Pole.

Right now, you see it has its landing tires on the bottom, but when it went to the South Pole, it had skis, literally snow skis because it didn't land on a runway, it landed on an ice rink basically. What they had to do at the South Pole, the 50 U.S. scientists who are there was shovel snow to create a smooth ice pond for this plane to land on, and that's precisely what it did. It flew in a blinding snowstorm with heavy winds but made it there safely, dropped off another doctor by the name of Betty Carlisle because Dr. Shemenski was the only doctor there. Betty Carlisle has now taken his place. Picked up Dr. Shemenski, waited a couple of hours. Spent the night there. Everyone relaxing, waiting for the weather to clear. And then yesterday, leaving there 12:45 Eastern time to fly to the British base, the Rothera Station, which is the closest base in the South Pole to South America and then continuing here.

With me right now is Steve Dunbar. Steve is with Raytheon Polar Services, the company that employs Dr. Shemenski. He was in charge of this operation, getting the doctor back here.

Let me ask you at this point, Steve, how relieved are you that the plane has made it safely?

STEVE DUNBAR, RAYTHEON POLAR SERVICES: We're all just very excited and pleased that they made it back, and that all the planning and hard work that everybody put in came through and we made it happen.

TUCHMAN: How concerned were you about this mission?

DUNBAR: Well, I think we knew that there was a chance that we might not be able to get in and swap the doctors out. The level of concern actually wasn't that high in terms of the safety of the crew. We knew we were going to be able to get the airplane, make the attempt and then come back. We felt pretty good about that.

TUCHMAN: Knowing that this was the first rescue mission in the polar winter to the South Pole, what made you so sure that it would be so successful?

DUNBAR: Well, we hired the best crews. We came up with a lot of contingency planning on what we were going to do in terms of navigation, in terms of the operation of the aircraft. We double checked on what the airplane was capable of. Checked with the engine manufacturer, what the airplane could do. And we were fairly confident that we could pull it off.

TUCHMAN: Dr. Shemenski works with you. What are you going to say to him in a few minutes when you go to see him?

DUNBAR: I think actually I need to go out to the aircraft right now.

TUCHMAN: You're going out right now, OK. You're going to see in a couple of minutes a man in a yellow and black jacket, and that's the gentleman we were just talking with, Steve Dunbar, the manager of field operations for Raytheon Polar Services, who is going to go talk to Dr. Shemenski when he comes off the plane just now.

Dr. Shemenski's family had said he wanted to complete his year. He supposed to in the South Pole for a year. It is an area of beauty, of solicitude, harsh, harsh weather. The only worse weather on earth right now would not be on earth. It would be on the planet Mars, a planet far away from the sun. There's nothing like it on earth. These people live in temperatures that average this time of year 75 below zero Fahrenheit, 60 below zero Celsius. And with the windchill, sometimes it gets to 143 below zero Fahrenheit, which is about 90 below zero Celsius. So it's very harsh weather.

Shemenski wanted to stay there. He's 59 years old. He's from Oak Harbor, Ohio. That's his hometown. But he now lives in Colorado where Raytheon Polar Services is based.

Now as we're speaking to you, a contingent from Raytheon Polar Services is now walking out to that plane, including the gentleman we just talked to, Steve Dunbar, to greet the doctor.

Dr. Shemenski will be staying here in Chile until at least tomorrow, most likely Saturday. The plan for him is to take it easy, relax a little bit, and then he will go to Colorado where he lives and works to go into the hospital this weekend so he can have procedures taken cake of to repair the problems that forced him to leave Antarctica in the first place. And now take a look at the reunion that's about to occur.

CHEN: That, as Gary Tuchman describes it, is the reunion of Dr. Ronald Shemenski, who all this attention is being focused on as he's being reunited with the company that he works for, Raytheon Services, a company chartered to take care of the situation at the South Pole. Dr. Ronald Shemenski with a crowd there.

Note to our viewers. Although this video does not look particularly attractive, this is via videophone. It's a new technology that CNN has been using for these more remote locations. It has kind of that jerky digital effect because of the transmission line. It is a very new service, but it is something that allows us to bring you pictures from these very remote locations like Punta Arenas and the very, very southern part of Chile, the very tip of Chile. There's nothing between that and all the way to the Antarctic.

But because of this technology, you are able to see Dr. Ronald Shemenski and some of the folks from the plane who were onboard with him as well, meeting the Raytheon Services crew that Gary Tuchman had been talking to. They, of course, have been very eager to see that this plane arrive safely.

You also might have noticed in the video that there was a second plane, a plane with some blue markings on it. They had been called the red plane and the blue plane. The red plane being the one carrying Dr. Shemenski, the blue plane being sort of a backup aircraft. They flew both of these planes down to the South Pole just there was any difficulty.

Again, remember this is something that had never been tried before, and there had been a great deal of concern about being able to operate these two twin otter plans down in the very, very cold temperatures of the Antarctic to be able to effect this rescue. So they actually sent down two aircraft to bring Dr. Shemenski and the others in this party back to Chile. And as you see, the green party is there.

We had been watching very carefully here, because we had anticipated that Dr. Shemenski might make some remarks. Not sure if he's aware of how much international attention is being paid on the rescue effort to bring him back to safety, but in any case, there is likely to be some explanation to him in the coming days, of how much attention has been taken.

We understand this is a rather long runway at Punta Arenas. Although Chile may seem a long way to you to the South Pole, it's the furthest commercial airport South, closest one available to the Antarctic.

And on this map, you see the big operation here. The Amundsen- Scott Base in the Antarctic, where Dr. Shemenski had been assigned down there at the South Pole. A 10-hour flight, it just looks like a short flight here, but it's a 10-hour flight back to the Rothera Base, a British-sponsored base in the Antarctic at the edge there. And another 2-plus hours from Rothera to Punta Arenas in the south of Chile.

But again, as you saw just moments ago, the reunion of Dr. Shemenski. It was hard to see in the pictures. We grant you that. But that was the reunion of Dr. Shemenski with his bosses at Raytheon Corporation, as they were brought in together.

Again, this is a videotape just from a few moments ago, as the plane came in. There is a small contingent of journalists down there watching and waiting for Dr. Shemenski's plane to come in. And you see the plane, as it makes the landing down there at the south end, if you can drop the graphics off there.

This is a live picture, again, of the red plane, the one that brought Dr. Shemenski in. You don't see the blue plane, the secondary plane involved in the operation. But they still seem to getting the details and bring Dr. Shemenski in. I believe that is him in the blue hat -- you might be able to see very close to the plane. Now, actually, appears to be going back to it.

I am not sure how much cargo he's able to bring back with him, or whether he's brought back any luggage with him at all. Again, the big factor here is the ability for this plane to fly in very cold conditions. I am not sure how it might be affected by additional weight. But they didn't bring that many people on the plane. This is the blue plane that we had been talking about. The secondary twin otter involved in the rescue effort. To make sure that, if anything had gone wrong with the first plane, the red plane that you see there, that there would be a backup available.

CNN's Gary Tuchman rejoins us now on the phone line. Gary, I know that it might be a little bit hard for you to hear all the way down there in Punta Arenas by this new technology that we have. But, can you tell us a little bit about the greeting party there?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well the greeting party, Joie, does come mostly from the airports here in Punta Arenas, Chile, which is in the Antedotian (ph) region in Chile, and also from Raytheon Polar Service -- that is the company that contracted by the U.S. government to bring scientists to the U.S. South Pole station. So, as you have been able to see, a very grateful group of people who are welcoming everybody back here.

We do want to explain -- you may have explained this already, Joie, forgive me if you have explained it. Why we use the video telephone to show these pictures. There are a lot of places in the past that we are not able to provide the live signals from remote areas into the world. Until we had this kind of equipment, we weren't able to do it. Now we can. That's the reason we see the picture that you've so aptly described, Joie, for us -- the clutch cargo effect.

You see -- it looks like little snapshots, but it's the only way to bring you the live pictures and is that why we are happy to bring you the situations like this, particularly historic situations like this, the first ever rescue from the South Pole during the polar winter.

CHEN: Gary, can you talk a little bit about what is ahead for Dr. Shemenski? His medical condition right now is actually not all that grave. But he does -- he is going to be seeking some treatment, now that he is back on less than icy land?

TUCHMAN: Well, that is right. What Dr. Shemenski will be doing -- originally, they were telling us they have an balance here at the airport to take him to a hospital here in Punta Arenas. Now, there's no need for that. They say he is in satisfactory condition.

And basically, if he gets the proper medical attention, almost assuredly, he will recover from the pancreatitis that he has been given the word that he had. However, if he would have stayed at the South Pole for the next few months without any of the proper medical attention he needed, then he could have had a serious problem. It's potentially life threatening.

And that is what his family made clear a week ago when this was thought about to bring him out of the South Pole. They didn't want people saying this man had a life-threatening conditioning or his dying or anything like that. They say he is fine, as long as he gets the proper attention.

So, he'll be leaving now scheduled for Saturday to go back to Colorado, to enter the hospital in Colorado and then to there, he'll get treated for the gallbladder problems that led to this diagnoses that he has.

CHEN: Gary, it might be hard for you to see what we are seeing via videophone. But there's a little bit of confusion: is Dr. Shemenski the guy, he's a little bit hidden now in our picture. He seems to be wearing a blue cap, standing up on the back there next to the guy in the yellow?

TUCHMAN: Dr. Shemenski is the one -- it's hard to tell in the picture. It's hard for me to see. Because you have a better shot actually than we do, because we are so far away from that. But I don't think that he is one of the three men you see in the picture right now. I think that he walked back and he's obscured. But, as soon as we are able to see him, we will let you know.

CHEN: All right. Can you tell us a little bit more about Punta Arenas? This is a jumping off point, though, for the tourists when they want to see the area around the Antarctic, right?

TUCHMAN: Right. Punta Arenas is the closest, major city to South America. Not only that, but it's the further southern city in the world. There are some areas just outside of Chile, the Tierra Del Fuego, which is an area south of here, but those are little towns and villages there. This is the most southern major city in the world. And the people here take great pride in it.

Chile is a very interesting country; 2400 miles long, 120 miles wide, at it's the widest point. And very different climates obviously because it's so long. The northern part of Chile is very warm. This part of Chile is very cold. Santiago, for example, right now is in the 70s Fahrenheit, you get into the typical high during the day is 40, and it gets down into the 20s late at night. So, it's a very interesting area.

This is where, if you go to the zoo and see penguins -- well, this is why they come from, this part of South America.

CHEN: Gary, talk us to a little bit more for our viewers who have not following this closely, about the path that Dr. Shemenski took to get off of the ice of the South Pole?

TUCHMAN: Dr. Shemenski was flown from the U.S. Polar Station, which is right in the middle of Antarctica, to the Rothera Station. The Rothera Station is about 850 miles away from the U.S. South Pole Station. The closest point of Antarctica is South America.

You know, you can't say that something's north, south, east, or west of something on the South Pole. There are no directions on the South Pole, because obviously South America is north of the South Pole, and then the other side of the world, New Zealand and Australia, are north of the South Pole.

But where he flew -- the British base is the part of Antarctica closest to South America. So, he was in the Rothera Station for one night and then they left this morning for the flight here to Punta Arenas. And the plan right now, now that he's in Punta Arenas after 4 1/2 hours of flying today, eight hours of flying yesterday is to rest for two days and not to do more flying, until he takes a nice long flight on Saturday. Get a load of this, Joie: right now, since he is in good enough condition, he's planning on taking a commercial flight from here, this Punta Arenas Airport to fly to the capital of Chile, Santiago, about a four-hour flight, he will then continue on a commercial flight to Miami, then continue once again on a commercial flight to Denver, where he will enter the hospital, we are being told, on Sunday.

CHEN: Gary, we want to bring in now on the telephone line Robert Shemenski; he is Dr. Shemenski's brother. He is on the line with us from Canton, Ohio.

Mr. Shemenski, I understand that you may have had a chance here to see your brother arriving safely on dry, or at least not icy land. Have you watched the end of the rescue effort here?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI, BROTHER OF RESCUED DOCTOR: That is correct. We are very happy to see him arrive safely in Chile, right.

CHEN: Have you been able to talk to him throughout the whole ordeal? I don't know how much communication you can have with folks down at the South Pole.

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: I have communicated with him via e-mail up until the time he left the Pole, yes.

CHEN: And what did he tell about the situation?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: He was telling me that he felt good now, now that the gallbladder attack was over and that he was getting ready to leave. He was starting to pack and put his belongings together.

CHEN: I believe that the circle here, that we are seeing on the screen now, is showing us that that is his brother. He does seem to be walking upright and well, and comfortably; I am sure that that is a relief to you.

Did he have any idea how much attention is being attention is being paid to his case up here in the States?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: I'm sure he did. We had communication about that, yes.

CHEN: He had told you he had an idea? I don't know that he'd get CNN at the South Pole.

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: He was in contact with us, and he was also in contact with Raytheon, who I am sure had briefed him on what to expect.

CHEN: Tell us a little bit about your brother as a guy, the kind of guy who would want to tough something out. I understood that the original plan was for him to stick down there for the whole year.

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Yes, that is the normal operation for the physician to stay there for the whole year. CHEN: Is that the style of your brother, the kind of guy who would want to live in these really, really difficult situations and the conditions down in the South Pole?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Absolutely, yes, that's right. He has done some services in those kinds of conditions, not as severe, naturally, as the South Pole. But he has been up in the Antarctic Circle in Australia and some places.

CHEN: There has been some attention paid to the great cost of this sort of a rescue. And I wonder if he expressed to you any concern about the efforts to bring him off. The great, not only expense, but the safety considerations, all of this being done on his behalf.

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Absolutely. He has not talked about the expense. But he has been very concerned about the safety of the flight crew coming into rescue him. Yes.

CHEN: Well, was he -- I don't know what you would call it -- embarrassed, concerned at all that people are going all out of this way, when he really is at this point in pretty good shape, pretty comfortable at this point, I guess?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: I think that you are right on that respect, yes.

CHEN: What do you expect for him next?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: I don't know, ma'am. I couldn't tell you. It's going to be between him and Raytheon and his other plans. I have no idea what that would be.

CHEN: And you -- he normally works out in Colorado?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: No, he only works out of Oak Harbor, Ohio. He does not live at Colorado, which was reported. He lives at Oak Harbor, Ohio.

CHEN: I see. And why would he be going to Colorado, then?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: That is where the Raytheon headquarters is.

CHEN: Oh, and that's where they want to treat him there. Now, when will you be reunited with him?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Whenever he comes back from Colorado.

CHEN: I am sure there will be quite a welcoming party by you guys out there?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Yes, we are very eager to meet him again.

CHEN: What do you -- what do you think is going to happen as a result of all of this? Do you think that there is a book in your brother's future? Because there's an awful lot of attention being paid to him now.

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: I wouldn't think so. I can't tell you what my brother's plans are, but I don't think he is the type of person that would write a book on this.

CHEN: We are looking for our viewers who are watching these videophone shots. Again, we've described them as looking a little clutch-cargo-ish. There is a conversation going on. We will try to listen in on that. This is the live picture from Punta Arenas.

QUESTION: How are you feeling, sir?

DR. RONALD SHEMENSKI, RESCUED FROM SOUTH POLE: I am fine, thank you. Thank you.

QUESTION: How was it being at the bottom of the world and knowing you had this condition?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: It was OK. We had lots of support. A lot of support.

QUESTION: How was the flight?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: Very nice. Very good.

QUESTION: Was it scary at all?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: No,. The pilots are very professional. Two very good guys. No problems.

QUESTION: How do you feel about being away from the South Pole now? You wanted to spend a year there?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: I am disappointed. I would like to go back.

QUESTION: Do you feel OK?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: I am going back. I am going back.

QUESTION: How do you feel?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: I feel fine. Thanks.

QUESTION: Are you going to go back to the South Pole?

QUESTION: Sir, are you going to go be going -- sir, are you going to be going to Colorado into the hospital?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: We'll see. I haven't decided where we are going yet.

QUESTION: You found out about this diagnoses that you had, this condition, this pancreatitis. How worried and scared were you?

RONALD SHEMENSKI: I wasn't. But we can talk about this later.

QUESTION: Do you have mixed feelings about (OFF-MIKE)?

CHEN: Again, for our viewers here watching all of this. It's a little bit hard to watch. This is videophone technology, some of the latest technology CNN is using to get into one of the most remote parts of the world. And as you see, it doesn't always work tremendously well. But we are able to show you these pictures, both Doctor Ronald Shemenski, his comments, some of the other folks greeting him there.

This is the picture from earlier, as he first came off of the plane, the twin otter that had effected the first Arctic rescue in winter -- first Antarctic rescue in winter, bringing doctors Ronald Shemenski back up to Chile, on his way back up to the States for treatment for his health concerns.

We understand now that apparently this runs in the family of the Shemenski men, being a brother of few words, Robert Shemenski, the brother of Dr. Ronald Shemenski is on the telephone line with us from Canton.

I don't know if you were able to hear his remarks, particularly not well through the videophone, but what was your impression?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: It was very good to hear my brother's voice again. And I wasn't at all surprised at his interview, because that is he, now doubt about it.

CHEN: That is he, how do you mean that?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: A man of few words. You said it yourself.

CHEN: It apparently runs in the family. I hear that about both of you. Can you tell us about some of his other adventures? You said that he has been way up into the north as well?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Yeah, he spent time, one of his assignments was at Barrow in Alaska, which is on the Arctic, which is above the Arctic Circle. And he also spent one assignment in Australia.

CHEN: Also in rough conditions out there?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Well, he was out in some of the rougher conditions, yes.

CHEN: What about his medical practice? Is he a general practitioner? I mean, I don't know what kind of...


CHEN: ... assignment you would get to go into the South Pole. Is there a particular expertise that you would have?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: He's family practice, right, general practitioner. That is correct.

CHEN: And has he had a normal private practice in Ohio, where he just sees the patients who come in with sore throats and that sort of thing, besides all this?

ROBERT SHEMENSKI: Yes, he did that for several years in Oak Harbor until he decided that he wanted to travel.

CHEN: All right. We have been watching all of these pictures and there is a great deal of excitement, folks watching this first polar rescue from the South Pole of Dr. Ronald Shemenski.

We have been talking with Robert Shemenski, the brother of Dr. Ronald Shemenski about his impressions as his brother arrived safely at Punta Arenas in Chile. We thank him for his contributions. We are happy to watch this, to see this come to a happy resolution, and we'll get more of CNN NEWS SITE after we come back from a break.



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