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Arctic Researchers Trapped by Blizzard, Still in Contact

By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
TOKYO

In a cold hut on a remote Russian island above the Arctic Circle, three men filming polar bears have been marooned in a blizzard for a month and a half, keeping in contact with colleagues in Tokyo and New Zealand by e-mail even as they are down to their last rations of food.

At least three helicopters are standing by in a port about 70 miles from Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea, but 21 hours of darkness each day and white-out blizzard conditions during the faint light has prevented rescue of the three - a Japanese producer and Australian cameraman and their Russian guide.

Monday in Moscow, diplomats from the nations involved were discussing the possibility of U.S. Coast Guard aircraft from Alaska, some 600 miles to the east, dropping food near the hut because the men's supplies are nearly exhausted, according to their colleagues. The situation was described as "politically sensitive" because of concerns that Russia would be uncomfortable asking the United States for help with a rescue in Russian territory.

"We are begging the Russians to rescue them," said Yasuhiro Nagasaki, a Moscow-based correspondent for NHK, a Japanese television network whose producer is one of those stranded. "They're ready to fly, but the weather is the problem."

Russian military helicopters and others chartered by an insurance company hired by the film's producers have been standing by for weeks at Point Shmidta, a small settlement on the mainland across the ice pack from Wrangel Island, waiting for a break in the weather.

The filmmakers were working on a documentary on Asian wildlife co-produced by a New Zealand film company and NHK. The stranded men are producer Tatsuhiko Kobayashi, cameraman Rory McGuinness and a guide, Nikita Ovfyanikov. They are huddled together in a small research hut at Point Blossom, an incongruously named spit of iced-over tundra on the southwestern tip of the desolate island northwest of the Bering Strait.

The three men arrived on Wrangel in mid-September and were scheduled to stay until mid-October.

The men have been able to keep in touch through e-mail sent through a battery-powered satellite phone, as well as by a few telephone calls. Correspondence is kept to a bare minimum because "batteries are a huge problem."