Trapped Russian Sailors Rescued
PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia – Seven people on a submarine trapped for nearly three days under the Pacific Ocean (search) were rescued Sunday after a British remote-controlled vehicle cut away undersea cables that had snarled their vessel, allowing it to surface.
The seven, whose oxygen supplies had been dwindling, appeared to be in satisfactory condition when they emerged, naval spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo (search) said. They were examined in the clinic of a naval ship, then transferred to a larger vessel to return to the mainland.
About five hours after their rescue, six of them were brought to a hospital on the mainland for examination, waving to relatives as they went in; the seventh was kept aboard a hospital ship for unspecified reasons.
The mini-sub's commander, Lt. Vyacheslav Milashevsky (search), was pale and appeared overwhelmed when he got off the ship that brought the men to shore. But he told journalists he was "fine" before climbing into a mini-van to take him to the hospital.
His wife, Yelena, earlier said she was overjoyed when she learned the crew had been rescued.
"My feelings danced. I was happy. I cried," she told Channel One.
The sub surfaced at 4:26 p.m. local time Sunday, some three days after becoming entangled under 600 feet of water off the Pacific Coast on Thursday and after a series of failed attempts to drag it closer to shore or haul it closer to the surface. It was carrying six sailors and a representative of the company that manufactured it.
"The crew opened the hatch themselves, exited the vessel and climbed aboard a speedboat," said Rear Adm. Vladimir Pepelyayev, deputy head of the naval general staff.
"I can only thank our English colleagues for their joint work and the help they gave in order to complete this operation within the time we had available — that is, before the oxygen reserves ran out," he said.
The men aboard the mini-sub waited out tense hours of uncertainty as rescuers raced to free them before their air supply ran out. They put on thermal suits to insulate them against temperatures of about 40 F inside the sub and were told to lie flat and breathe as lightly as possible to conserve oxygen.
To save electricity, they turned off the submarine's lights and used communications equipment only sporadically to contact the surface.
"The crew were steadfast, very professional," Pepelyayev said on Channel One television. "Their self-possession allowed them to conserve the air and wait for the rescue operation."
In an echo of the Kursk sinking, President Vladimir Putin had made no public comment by Sunday on the mini-sub drama. Putin remained on vacation as the Kursk disaster unfolded, raising criticism that he appeared either callous or ineffectual.
But in sharp contrast to the August 2000 Kursk disaster, when authorities held off asking for help until hope was nearly exhausted, Russian military officials quickly made an urgent appeal for help from U.S. and British authorities. All 118 people on board the Kursk died, some surviving for hours as oxygen ran out.
As U.S. and British crews headed toward the trapped sub, Russian officials considered various ways of freeing the vessel.
Russian ships had tried to tow the sub and its entanglements to shallower water where divers could reach it, but were able to move it only about 60-100 yards in the Beryozovaya Bay about 10 miles off the coast of the Kamchatka peninsula, which juts into the sea north of Japan.
But by Sunday afternoon, a British remote-controlled Super Scorpio cut away the cables that had snarled the 44-foot mini submarine and it was able to come to the surface on its own.
Even the British rescue was hampered though. A mechanical problem with the Super Scorpio forced workers to bring the rescue vehicle to the surface, just after the discovery of a fishing net caught on the nose of the submarine, Russian officials said.
The United States also dispatched a crew and three underwater vehicles to Kamchatka, but they never left the port.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who went to Kamchatka to supervise the operation, praised the international efforts.
"We have seen in deeds, not in words, what the brotherhood of the sea means."
Officials said the Russian submarine was participating in a combat training exercise and got snarled on an underwater antenna assembly that is part of a coastal monitoring system. The system is anchored with a weight of about 66 tons, according to news reports.
The sub's propeller initially became ensnared in a fishing net, they said.
The events and an array of confusing and contradictory statements — with wildly varying estimates of how much air the crew had left — darkly echoed the sinking of the Kursk.
Russia's cash-strapped navy apparently lacks rescue vehicles capable of operating at the depth where the sub was stranded, and officials say it was too deep for divers to reach or the crew to swim out on their own.
The submarine's problems indicated that promises by Putin to improve the navy's equipment apparently have had little effect. He was criticized for his slow response to the Kursk crisis and reluctance to accept foreign assistance.
The new crisis has been highly embarrassing for Russia, which will hold an unprecedented joint military exercise with China later this month, including the use of submarines to settle an imaginary conflict in a foreign land. In the exercise, Russia is to field a naval squadron and 17 long-haul aircraft.
New criticism arose within hours of the mini-sub's crew being rescued. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the nationalist Rodina party in the lower house of parliament, said he would demand an assessment from the Military Prosecutor's Office of the navy's performance in the incident, the Interfax news agency reported.
Rogozin said he wants to know why Russia has not acquired underwater vehicles similar to the ones provided by Britain and the United States and "why fishing nets and cables litter the area of naval maneuvers."
"It appears the naval command is not in control of the area of naval exercises," he said, according to Interfax.