A helicopter crash in Antarctica has claimed the lives of two people and injured three. Willem Polman, 45, a technician at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), was killed Sunday morning when a helicopter based on the research ship Polarstern crashed near the German Antarctic station Neumayer II. The German pilot, 37, was also killed. Three other passengers were injured, two of them seriously, according to the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) for Polar and Sea Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, which operates both the ship and the Neumayer station.
The news of Polman's death "hit all of us like a bomb," says Jan Boon, a NIOZ spokesperson. "We still have trouble believing it."
Polarstern is on a 10-week voyage to investigate the Southern Ocean as part of the International Polar Year. One of the injured, Dutch graduate student Maarten Klunder, 27, was working on a project that measured the effect of iron concentration on algae growth (Polman built a titanium device to take ocean water samples for the project). A 24-year-old German and a 25-year-old French researcher were also injured. NIOZ announced the names of the two Dutch researchers, but AWI has declined to name the pilot and the other researchers, citing German privacy laws. AWI spokesperson Margarete Pauls said the injured are in stable condition in the ship's medical ward. If weather permits, they will be flown to Cape Town for further treatment on Wednesday.
The ship had stopped briefly near Neumayer II to drop off supplies, and those on the flight were on their way to the station to help with unpacking. Polarstern will remain near the station until the injured are evacuated and then continue its voyage. The ship's second helicopter will be sufficient to complete its scientific mission, Pauls said. Polarstern is expected to conclude its research trip in Punta Arenas, Chile, on 16 April.
The cause of the crash is unclear; the weather at the time was apparently good. Pauls said the German Aviation Agency is investigating. A commemoration service for the victims was held this afternoon at AWI and this evening onboard the ship.