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County councilor on sinking cruise ship off Antarctica

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By Carol A. Clark

Forced to abandon their sinking cruise ship and travel on lifeboats in sub-zero temperatures, Los Alamos County Councilor Robert Gibson and wife Lori Heimdahl Gibson survived and are due home today.Gloria Castillo from the Los Alamos County administrators office confirmed Friday that the Gibsons were on the ship.“They are fine,” Castillo said, and e-mailed an account of the accident and subsequent rescue. The ordeal began late Thanksgiving night, when an official of the Chilean Navy said they received a distress call from the Explorer saying it hit an iceberg. The ship, which carried a Liberian flag, was on day 12 of a 19-day tour of the southern Atlantic and Antarctic Peninsula.According to reports, the vessel had a hole larger than a fist in its hull. It began taking on water and the electricity eventually went out. Few passengers showed signs of worry as they boarded lifeboats and rafts around 3 a.m. Reports indicate their behavior was peaceful and controlled, no one panicked.Some of the passengers were reported in a Chilean newspaper to have grown cold and weary after spending some four hours in rafts and lifeboats before boarding the M/S Nordnorge, a Norwegian cruise liner. Officials said six passengers were treated for mild hypothermia. The ship had been to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and was on its way to the Danco Coast, on the peninsula's tip, when the accident occurred, according to reports. A spokeswoman with G.A.P. Adventures, the Toronto, Canada based company that owned the M/S Explorer, is reported to have said the vessel did not hit an iceberg but rather a submerged piece of ice. G.A.P Adventures provides excursions with an environmental focus. The Explorer was on a circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands letting passengers observe penguins, whales and other wildlife while getting briefings from experts on the region. The ship was carrying 91 passengers including at least 14 Americans, 12 Canadians, 10 Australians, 24 Britons, 17 Dutch and others, according to G.A.P. Adventures. The ship also carried nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54. The captain and chief officer initially stayed on the ship, according to reports, to make sure everyone was evacuated and to see if they could repair the damage, but left the ship when it became clear it could not be saved. The ship reportedly sunk beneath the waves near Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, some 20 hours after the accident.The Norwegian cruise ship took the stranded passengers and crew to a Chilean air force base on King George Island in Antarctic waters near southernmost South America, where they began to make plans to return to their homes.County Councilor Fran Berting said she received an e-mail from Council Chair Jim West, who had received a call from a ship official “saying Robert and his wife were okay and he put the word out to the rest of us,” Berting said. “We’re waiting for them to get back so we can get a full explanation of what happened.”Los Alamos resident Sharon Stover coordinates the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, of which Lori is a member. Lori heads up the organization’s JUNTOS program. “We’ve been tracking their trip through an e-mail the cruise line set up,” Stover said. “We’re anxious for them to get home so we can hear all about it.”