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'I couldn't believe I was still alive,' says Utahn of Antarctic shipwreck

Lisa Paisola talks about surviving a shipwreck in Antarctic waters. Media around the world have sought to interview her.
Lisa Paisola talks about surviving a shipwreck in Antarctic waters. Media around the world have sought to interview her.
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

NORTH SALT LAKE — Everything in Lisa Paisola's tastefully decorated living room exudes warmth: the reed vases from Tahiti, the family pictures adorned with Fijian frames, the palm tree throw pillows.

"I hate to be cold," she said. "Being cold is one of my worst things."

Paisola never thought she would see her comfortable home or family again after submerged ice punched a hole in the cruise ship she was on near the coast of Antarctica last week. She and her aunt, Kay Van Horne, of Denver, were among 154 passengers and crew who had to abandon the MS Explorer for lifeboats. They floated in subfreezing temperatures for more than five hours before being rescued.

"It's so surreal," said Paisola, sitting on her couch stroking a stuffed toy penguin she received from a rescuer. "I'm just so grateful to be here. ... By all rights, I shouldn't be here having this conversation with you today."

Paisola, a seasoned traveler and cruiser, knew from the moment passengers were ordered to muster on deck late last Thursday that "we were in deep, deep trouble." Every inch of her body started "shaking from the inside out" as she donned her arctic gear and orange life vest.

"There's not a word in the English language to describe what I felt at that moment," she said.

At the muster station or "penguin room," Paisola couldn't sit still. She sent dozens of goodbye e-mails to family and friends along with a hastily written will. She told them to enjoy a planned African safari without her. She used her camera, which had a flotation device attached, to videotape and photograph everything in sight. She wanted her family to see how she died.

"At that point, the only thing I was thinking about was family and death," she said.

Her e-mails stopped when the MS Explorer's power died. She recorded the drifting ship slam into an iceberg. At that point, she said, the captain called for passengers to abandon ship.

No one panicked. Passengers boarded the lifeboats calmly and in an orderly way, Paisola said. She and her aunt held hands or locked elbows to stay together. There were no other ships in view when they hit the water. The Explorer sank about 20 hours after first taking on water.

"It was like we were the only ones on the planet at that point," she said.

Paisola said she lost all sense of time — and still hasn't regained it — waiting to be rescued. The deep cold numbed her hands and feet. Passengers sitting knee-to-knee reminded each other to wiggle their toes and fingers.

Passing helicopters gave them their first glimmer of hope for rescue. Some hours later a Norwegian luxury cruise liner arrived. Paisola's boots slipped off her feet into the sea as rescuers pulled her to safety.

"There are million different things that could have gone wrong and should have gone wrong. All the stars had to be aligned for every last one of us to be alive," she said.

Paisola said she sobbed uncontrollably for hours once on board.

"I couldn't believe I was still alive," she said. "I couldn't process what we had been through."

A kindly worker on the Norwegian ship stayed by her side. When Paisola lamented the loss of her world travel companion — a plush clown fish named Sushi — the worker gave her a stuffed toy penguin from the gift shop and dubbed it Sushi Too.

The penguin, her life vest and a cold are the only things Paisola brought home from the cruise. =She downed lots of cough medicine Wednesday to get through numerous interviews. Since returning home, media around the world have inundated an exhausted Paisola, who figures she has slept about five hours the past five days. Reporters from Australia, France, Germany, England and Canada called. Her brother, Robert Paisola, has taken on the role of gatekeeper.

"Al Jazeera called wanting an exclusive on intellectual property and wanting to have an exclusive on interviewing her," he said.

Had Paisola's family had its way, she wouldn't have taken the trip. All of them had a bad feeling including her mother, Patti Tew, who took out a million-dollar life insurance policy on her daughter.

Paisola didn't get the chance to set foot on Antarctica, which would have completed her quest to visit the world's seven continents. The Antarctic Sound was close enough.

"I'm completely at peace with that," she said. "I've done what I set out to do as far as I'm concerned."

Paisola isn't sure when she will travel or cruise again. But Hawaii, she said, is looking good right now.


E-mail: romboy@desnews.com