Seven crewmen aboard Russian mini-sub are saved

Unmanned British craft cuts submersible free

August 07, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - A small Russian submarine was freed today from its undersea entanglement off the Far East coast by an unmanned British rescue vehicle that cut away the nets that ensnared it. All seven crew members were alive and rushed aboard a Russian surface vessel, where they were being examined by medical team, Russian news agencies and the U.S. Navy said.

The vessel rose to the surface at 4:26 p.m. local time, ending the crew's ordeal in the cold and darkness more than 600 feet below the surface off the Kamchatka Peninsula. There remained uncertainties about how the submersible, a 44-foot rescue vessel, became disabled and exactly what immobilized it.

Earlier today, Russian officials said the submarine's seven crew men were alive and had donned thermal suits, huddled together in a single compartment and were minimizing their movements to conserve their remaining air. Power had been all but shut down inside the sunken vessel and its heater turned off to save its dwindling energy reserves, rendering the titanium-hulled craft a chilled, dark tube.

The British craft sends video feeds to its operators on the surface and has implements that can cut thick steel cables. The hope was that the vessel would be able to trim the material entangling the submarine - first described as a fishing net, later as the antenna of an underwater monitoring station - and enable it to return to the surface.

Even if the Russian submarine had been damaged, experts expected that it would float quickly to the surface as soon as it was freed, according to Capt. Christopher Murray, the deputy director of the U.S. Navy's Deep Submergence Systems.

Two U.S. rescue submersibles had also arrived on the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, but they had not joined the rescue effort at midday local time.

Adm. Viktor D. Fyodorov, commander of Russia's Pacific fleet, said last night on national television before the rescue that he thought the air supply and quality would enable the crew to survive throughout today. But estimates by Russian officials of the air supply changed every few hours; Fyodorov's estimate appeared less optimistic than another he had made hours earlier.

Complicating the situation, the weather was worsening, with fog settling in and seas rising to 7 feet.

It took a Russian ship six hours to carry the British vessel, a Scorpio 45, from the port in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, the regional capital, to the site, U.S. Navy officials said. The American vessels, known as Super Scorpios, were being loaded onto another ship at the port as the British rescue craft began its work.

Before the British vessel made its dive, signs of confusion had become more apparent. Fyodorov was quoted by Interfax yesterday as saying a decision had been made to try to blow up some of the material that had immobilized the submarine. A duty admiral at Russia's naval headquarters in Moscow later said in a telephone interview that the Navy was not planning to use explosives; he declined to give his name.

Details of how the submarine, known as an AS-28 Priz, became disabled also began to take shape, although much remained uncertain.

The Russian navy initially said the submarine fell to the sea floor after its propeller snagged on a fishing net. By late Friday night, however, when Fyodorov was pressed by Russian journalists on live television, he said the vehicle had become entangled on an undersea military antenna.

Late yesterday, the admiral appeared with a diagram displaying a complex undersea grid anchored by four huge anchors. Russian naval officials described that apparatus as part of a coastal monitoring system used to track the movements of foreign submarines.

It is not clear what the Priz was doing at the site or when it became disabled - different reports have said Thursday morning and night - but Russia had been trying to free it for part of at least four days.

A surface vessel was able to hook either the submarine or the monitoring system and dragged the entangled objects a short distance before they became immobilized again.

Russian naval officials had said their best chance to rescue the submarine would be to pull the ship clear once slack was worked from the cables and the British vessel was in place.

But once the British rescue effort began, that strategy seemed unlikely.

With Russia unable to save its own vessel, and American and British rescue services arriving from distant points on the globe, the accident underscored anew the decline of Russia's military.

Formerly feared and respected, it has deteriorated sharply since the late Soviet period. Some naval ports are so short of cash that the Russian news media occasionally reports of electricity blackouts on bases because their administrators could not pay the bills.

The uncertainties and contradictions in the Russian navy's descriptions of the accident also bore reminders of the Kremlin's handling of the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk five years ago.

That vessel, perhaps Russia's most prestigious naval asset, was disabled by on-board explosions that at least part of the crew initially survived. All of its 118 crew members eventually perished in circumstances that have never been fully explained to the Russian public, and after a series of false statements and delays by Russian officials.

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