Minisub's crew of 7 trapped

four nations rush help to site

Russian navy vessel sank in Pacific

oxygen limited

Official reports contradictory

August 06, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Seven sailors aboard a miniature Russian submarine that sank off the Kamchatka Peninsula on Thursday were still trapped in the cold, dark waters of the North Pacific early today, as their air supply steadily dwindled.

The stubby, red-and-white-striped Priz tangled its propeller in fishing nets during naval exercises and sank in 625 feet of water, a Russian navy spokesman said.

The accident triggered an international rescue effort joined by Britain, Japan and the United States.

But in a day marked by confusion, Russian naval officials offered seemingly contradictory explanations of the submarine crew's predicament.

Officers told the Russian news media, at various times, that there was enough air aboard the Priz - which means Prize - to last 24 hours, two days, four days or five. Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo told The Sun that there was less than 24 hours' supply of air aboard, enough to keep the crew alive through about 5 a.m. EDT today.

Trawling for sub

Two Russian surface naval vessels used cables to trawl the seabed last night, in an effort to snag the sub, itself a rescue vehicle. The plan was to drag the Priz to shallower water where the crew could be retrieved.

At one point, the navy said the surface ships had grappled the submarine. But Rear Adm. Vladimir Pepelyaev later told the RIA Novosti news agency that the ships might not have hooked the Priz after all.

Adm. Viktor D. Fyodorov, commander of the Pacific Fleet, also told the state-run Interfax news agency that the Priz was caught by a cable attached to a 60-ton anchor on the seabed.

The statement appeared to contradict claims that the sub was trapped in fishing nets. The admiral did not explain what purpose such a huge anchor might have served or why the Priz crew had not known about it.

Naval officials said they had hoped to use another miniature submarine engaged in the exercises to retrieve the crew. But the craft was not equipped to operate in waters that deep.

Admiral Fyodorov told NTV television late last night that the sub's crew was still alive. Earlier, he had said they were in "satisfactory" condition, though they were directed to conserve electricity in the dark, 45-degree depths.

Russian naval authorities took the extraordinary step yesterday of appealing to Japan, Britain and the United States for aid.

The Russian navy has, in recent years, engaged in joint training exercises for submarine rescue operations with Western nations, according to the U.S. Navy. But many Russian military leaders still remain wary of their former Cold War rivals, especially when it comes to matters involving sensitive strategic technology.

Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, ordered the Navy's San Diego-based Deep Submergence Unit, along with two "super scorpio" submersibles, to fly to Kamchatka to aid the rescue, a statement from the Navy said.

The 4,500-pound submersibles, operated remotely by long tethers, are equipped with lights, television cameras and shears capable of slicing through one-inch steel cable. The British sent a similar undersea rescue team, RIA Novosti reported.

Japan has dispatched three vessels, Marine Self Defense Force spokesman Hidetsubu Iwamasa told the Associated Press, but they will not arrive until early next week.

Delay in reporting

A spokesman for the Krasnaya Soromovo shipyards, which built the Priz, told RIA Novosti that the 16-year-old minisub was scheduled for shipment to Nizhny Novgorod in November for an overhaul. But Captain Dygalo told the Itar-Tass wire service that the sub had not needed urgent repairs.

The Priz sank in the waters of Beryozovaya Bay, about 46 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the regional capital, along the peninsula's east coast.

The sub was lost in the early hours of Thursday. But the Russian news media did not report the sinking until more than 24 hours later.

The Priz, which can operate at a depth of 500 feet, is equipped with lights, cameras and grappler arms. It is similar to subs used in unsuccessful attempts to rescue the crew of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine that exploded and sank in the Barent Sea five years ago this month.

In the days after the Kursk sank, Russian naval authorities issued misleading or inaccurate statements. In the meantime, they mounted two efforts to retrieve survivors, who lived for several hours after the blast.

But the rescue efforts failed, and the crew's oxygen ran out. Four days after the sub sank, Russia finally appealed for international aid. By that time, all 118 sailors aboard were dead.

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