TOURISTS STRANDED ON BIKINI AFTER PLANE GROUNDED

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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Aug. 28) - The Marshall Islands government stepped in Friday to help evacuate stranded international tourists on Bikini Atoll after the only operating aircraft of the national airline was grounded on the previous Saturday.

The president’s office’ and Sea Patrol officials confirmed that the country’s search and rescue patrol vessel will depart Saturday for the former nuclear test site to pick up the dive group.

"It’ll take 36 hours to reach Bikini (on the patrol boat) and about 24 hours to get to Kwajalein from Bikini," said Sea Patrol’s chief and acting police commissioner Thomas Heine Friday. That is expected to get the group to the U.S. Army’s missile testing range at Kwajalein on Monday night where they can catch Continental Airlines flights to Hawai‘i and Guam.

Since the mid-1990s, Bikini has been a major international dive destination because of a fleet of World War II vessels on Bikini’s lagoon floor sunk during the first atomic tests in 1946. It has a fully outfitted hotel, including cooks, dive masters and other staff who handle groups of up to 12 divers who arrive on a weekly basis from March through November.

"In the 11 years of our (dive) operation, we have never had anyone stuck on Bikini for more than 24 hours," said dive official Jack Niedenthal. The seven international divers from Australia and the United States and one Canadian photo journalist stuck on Bikini were scheduled to fly back to Majuro on Wednesday, but could not because one of two Air Marshall Islands planes was grounded last Saturday following a mid-air engine failure. The only other plane in the airline’s fleet was grounded three weeks ago.

Dozens of American volunteer teachers who were supposed to start teaching this week on remote islands have also been stranded in Majuro, the capital, with the halt of all domestic air services. More than 30 volunteer teachers from the U.S.-based WorldTeach organization are waiting for planes to get to public schools on the scattered outer islands. School started this week in this western Pacific nation.

Bikini Atoll Divers refunded about US$25,000 to a group of European and American divers who flew into the Marshall Islands earlier this week but could not get to Bikini for a week of scuba diving, said Niedenthal.

"Our target to resume (domestic) service is September 5," Air Marshall Islands general manager Dan Fitzpatrick said Friday. The airline is renting a replacement engine for a 34-seat Dash-8 plane that was grounded three weeks ago after a pilot overheated an engine on start up, forcing the engine to be sent off-island to the U.S. for inspection and overhaul.

The other aircraft, a 19-seat Dornier suffered a mid-flight engine shutdown Saturday, but pilots were able to restart the engine and return safely to Majuro. But that resulted in the plane being grounded, halting all domestic air service. Nearly a week after the Dornier problem, airline mechanics have yet to identify the cause of the engine shutdown and the manufacturer has been engaged to help, Fitzpatrick said.

"We’re looking at a possible extended grounding of the Dornier," Fitzpatrick said.

While Fitzpatrick expects the Dash-8 to be back in service in early September, this doesn’t solve the country’s domestic air service problem since the larger Dash-8 is limited to landing on about half of the 30 outer island runways, most of which are unimproved grass and compacted coral strips.

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