English language Web site on current affairs in the biggest russian region
23:53 | Apr 26 | 2012

How to survive at - 87

Our polar explorers fought for life in Antarctica for almost a year.

April, 1982. The Soviet Antarctic station "Vostok". When the mankind enjoys the spring in northern hemisphere of the planet, polar night reigns in Antarctica - the coldest place of the planet. Four months of the severest frost and the uttermost darkness.

A research station here is like a spaceship or a submarine. If something happens, nobody will give a helping hand: neither planes nor motor transport can function in such cold weather. The situation itself is extreme but when on the night of April 12 the fire broke out at the station and destroyed the only electric power station which provided heat, the situation became a matter of life and death. How did 20 men manage to survive on a three-kilometer ice layer at -87 during nine months? Scientist- magnetologist Michael Gusev, the participant of that tragic wintering will tell us about it.

The expert in «Shining lights»
Mikhail is the expert in «Shining lights» - translation of the phrase "Polar lights" from the Yakut language. We had a meeting with him in a private house on the skirts of Yakutsk. At his age (59) the scientist-cosmophysics is smart and active. Thirty years have passed, but he remembers all details of that memorable year.
I consider myself a native of Yakutsk,” our interlocutor says, “though according to the passport I was born in the Moscow Region where my mother is from, and my father was born here. Here I studied and grew up. I graduated from our Yakut State University, the Department of Physics and Mathematics, and in 1981 I became a post-graduate student in it. Polar lights were the subject of my graduation work «Polar cap lights». And when I received an invitation to participate in the 27th Soviet Antarctic Expedition from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, no doubts, I agreed.”

A close shave
Station "Vostok" was a minor group of buildings where experts lived and worked and everyone had his own task. Besides magnetologist Michael Gusev, an ionosphere scientist, drilling people, a meteorologist, doctors, radio operators and a cook worked at the station. And if a community room with a rest room, a film projector and a dining room was the centre of cultural life, the building of diesel electric power plant (DEPP) which provided “Vostok” with heat and light was its true heart. Exactly there the fire broke out on the night of April 12.
I remember that night also because I was adjusting my scientific equipment for a long time,” Michael says. “And about at 4 a.m., at that time there was a polar night and it was impossible to define the time of day visually, bustle and shout started: «Fire!». I was dressed but others, who were sleeping, got dressed on the go and ran to a fire place.
The mischief was that all powerful fire fighting tools — foam extinguishers and others - were in the building which was burning. Though carbon dioxide fire extinguishers were in every building there was no use to apply them... I grasped one of them and ran to a fire place, I hit and turned it on, and only a thin stream was out... A child pees more!

The tragedy happened in the middle of a horizonless white desert which was called ice death by one of pioneers of Antarctica. While disconnecting electricity in the burning building, the Head of DEPP, Alexei Karpenko, died in smoke…
It became clear that there was no chance to save the building, but the real danger was that fire was already "licking" tanks with diesel fuel standing nearby.
Everybody realized that if they blew up, polar explorers wouldn't have a single chance to survive, because help could be provided only in spring, and there were no other fuel heat sources on a three-kilometer ice layer except these six tanks.
Probably, only the hand of God helped us,” Gusev considers. “When fire was already close to tanks with diesel fuel, wind direction unexpectedly changed.
I can say that drillers saved us in that situation. They had a welding machine and a small diesel engine with the help of which we managed to adjust radio communication. With the help of the welding machine we constructed small stoves. And we spent that long winter around those stoves. We slept in clothes. Sometimes we woke up in the morning and could not raise a head from a pillow — it was frozen down.

There was no time to be sad
Exactly in such conditions «new life» at the station began. Day and night black and sooty polar explorers watched the stoves. Anyway, it was warm, they had food, so they had to survive only till next Antarctic spring.
In general, frost there is similar to ours in Yakut, it is also dry,” the polar explorer informs. “Though, of course, it is pretty much colder there. If in Yakutsk it is -20, we say - «Wow, it has become warmer, spring arrives!», and there «Spring arrives» when it is - 55-60 degrees, so you can undo one button.
It was hard not only because of frosts, though sometimes it was up to -80, but because of mountain climate. "Vostok" is located at the height of 3500 meters above sea level and it is hard to breathe there because of low oxygen level.

One more fascinating page in life of “Vostok” was connected with so-called altitude sickness. A plane arrived at the station because one of polar explorers was threatened with death. At that time the minimum temperature for flights was - 60 degrees below zero. How inhabitants of the station and plane crew were lucky because exactly that day necessary temperature was established! Having landed just for a minute (because of the threat to freeze to a take-off runway), the plane boarded the patient and took off in several meters from the runway end.
Frankly speaking, at first we had no time to miss and be sad,” Mikhail Gusev says. “We had no time to sit around stoves as victims during a day. We had a lot of work to do, which could have been done much easier earlier (when there was electricity) - to saw and bring ice for drinking and cooking. Only later when it became clear that we could survive we had a real bath-house! Every day we started a diesel engine and watched two films.

Helping train
On November 29, 1982, a cat train arrived at the station “Vostok”. The whole month it was trailing along a white desert in order to help polar explorers. And what a surprise for long-awaited visitors it was when they met not a group of frozen people but a hot bath-house.
It should be noted that Michael was the only person among expedition participants who had no health problems during that extreme wintering due to his constant going in for gymnastics. Besides, accident conditions did not prevent him from conducting the major part of his scientific researches. After coming back to the "Big Land" in 1983, in some years he successfully defended his dissertation.
I very much hope that this accident has taught those people who are responsible for supply, arrangement and building,” our interlocutor sums up. “All diesel generators, both basic and reserve ones, were installed in one building, as well as the majority of powerful fire fighting tools.