Australian Antarctic Division / Fairfax via Reuters
A helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon ferried the passengers in small groups several times from the Russian ship and transferred them to an Australian Antarctic supply ship, the Aurora Australis.
At least one passenger shed tears of joy as others expressed relief and gratitude on Thursday after a helicopter whisked them off of an icebound Russian ship in Antarctica and delivered them onto an Australian icebreaker that will take them home.
The dramatic international rescue began just after 6:15 p.m. Thursday Australia time (2:15 a.m. Wednesday ET) and was completed about four hours later, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's (AMSA) confirmed.
More than 50 passengers from a Russian research ship were airlifted to safety after ice stranded their vessel. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.
It was made possible by a break in the weather, which since Christmas Eve had been too unforgiving to allow the distressed passengers to be freed. Driving snow and high winds as well as fog and impenetrable sea ice turned back numerous rescue attempts.
To help their rescuers Thursday, passengers joined arms and stomped out a makeshift landing site in the thick snow to allow the Chinese helicopter, based on the icebreaker Snow Dragon, to land.
It took five flights — four with a dozen passengers each, and a fifth with just four passengers — to take all 52 passengers off the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy.
Fairfax via Reuters
A helicopter from the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) Chinese icebreaker prepares to unload rescued passengers from the ice-bound Russian ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, in East Antarctica, some 100 nautical miles east of French Antarctic station Dumont D'Urville and about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Tasmania, January 2, 2014, in this handout courtesy of Fairfax's Australian Antarctic Division.
All of the 22 members of the crew aboard the stuck ship were staying with the icebound ship.
After a 14-nautical mile flight, the chopper landed on an ice floe next to the Aurora Australias. Passengers walked single file through snow before boarding a small boat that ferried them to the Australian ship.
"I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home," expedition leader Chris Turney, speaking on a satellite phone from Antarctica, told The Associated Press.
Joanne Sim, a paying passenger from Sydney, wept as she boarded the Australian icebreakers. She said the passengers had spent their time while trapped watching movies and playing games.
"It really has been an emotional rollercoaster," she told a reporter for the The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper who was aboard the ship.
The passengers then ate their first meal aboard the Aurora's galley.
Grant Hose, an Australian scientist who accounted for the passengers as they boarded the icebreaker said it was interesting to watch the rescue unfold.
"The passengers have been very grateful," he told the Herald.
John Young, an emergency manager for ASMA, said the rescue was one of the remotest and most complex ever coordinated from Australia, which carries emergency rescue responsibility for that part of Antarctica.
"The protracted nature of operations in Antarctica and the difficulty of getting good weather windows and getting the right ice conditions really make life very difficult,” Young told the AP. “And in this particular case, the simple fact of having to move 52 people who are not really trained for that environment added complexity.”
The passengers aboard the Russian vessel were a scientific team attempting to recreate Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica.
Early Friday, the Aurora Australis inched its way through heavy ice before it could reach open water. It was due to stop at Casey base, Antarctica, for supplies before the 14-day sail to the Australian island state of Tasmania.
This story was originally published on Thu Jan 2, 2014 7:30 PM EST