Rescuers struggle to save sailors trapped in submarine

A British plane carrying a sophisticated robotic underwater vehicle arrived on Saturday as part of an international effort to help rescue seven people trapped aboard a Russian mini-submarine off the Pacific coast, a navy spokesperson said.

Captain Igor Dygalo said the vehicle, called a Super Scorpio, was being unloaded for transport to the area where the submarine has been trapped at a depth of about 190m since Thursday.

It was unclear how long it would take for the vehicle to reach the site and anxiety was mounting over how much oxygen remained aboard the diminutive vessel.

Navy officials have given various estimates of the air supply, with some saying it could last into Monday. Admiral Vladimir Pepelayev, deputy head of the navy’s general staff, said on the NTV television channel on Saturday that the air would likely last another day.

The United States Navy is also sending three unmanned underwater vehicles to aid in the rescue effort—two Super Scorpios and another called a Deep Drone. News reports said a plane carrying the Scorpios arrived about an hour after the British


The cash-strapped Russian navy apparently has no rescue vehicles capable of operating at the depth where the sub is stranded and its rescue efforts have focused on trying to grab and drag the sub with a trawling apparatus.

Pepelayev said underwater video cameras show the submarine has been hooked, but the vessel is caught on an underwater antenna assembly that’s part of Russia’s coastal monitoring system.
The antenna system is anchored with a weight of about 60 tonnes, news reports say.

Dygalo earlier said that rescuers had managed to move the sub about 60m toward shore by hooking onto a part of the underwater antenna on which the sub was

caught. A Russian remote vehicle that is transmitting pictures is helping to monitor the process.

Initial reports said the sub had become ensnared in a fishing net.

Dygalo said rescuers made contact with the sub crew at around 1:15pm local time (12.15am GMT) and their condition was reported to be “satisfactory”.

The events and the array of confusing and contradictory statements darkly echoed the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk and the deaths of 118 sailors almost exactly five years ago. That disaster shocked Russians and deeply embarrassed the country by demonstrating how the once-mighty navy had deteriorated as funding

dried up following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The new crisis underlined that promises by President Vladimir Putin to improve the navy’s equipment have apparently had little effect. Authorities initially said a mini-sub would be sent to try to aid the stranded one, but the navy later said the vehicle wasn’t equipped to go that deep.

Putin was sharply criticised for his slow response to the Kursk crisis and reluctance to accept foreign assistance. By early on Saturday, Putin had made no public comment on the latest sinking.

In contrast to the Kursk incident, Russian officials asked for outside assistance on Friday within hours of news breaking about the sinking—instead of waiting until hope was all but exhausted as they did in 2000.

A US Air Force C-5 jet was carrying two Super Scorpio vehicles and 40 people. A US Navy spokesperson said a remote vehicle known as a Deep Drone 8000 that can operate at depths up to 2 400m had also been sent.

Airlifting a US underwater vehicle to Kamchatka marks the first time since the World War II era that a US military plane has been allowed to fly there. Since Soviet times, the peninsula has housed several major submarine bases and numerous other military facilities, and large areas of it are off limits to outsiders.

The mini-submarine was trapped in Beryozovaya Bay, about 75km south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the peninsula region north of Japan and west of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

The vessel, which was participating in a combat training exercise, was too deep to allow the sailors to swim to the surface on their own or for divers to reach it, officials said.

The sailors were in contact with authorities and were not hurt, naval officials said.

After the Kursk disaster, Putin had called for serious improvements in the military’s equipment and training, but little improvement has been noticed publicly. The navy reportedly ended its deep-sea diving training programmes a decade ago due to funding shortages.

The trapped AS-28, which looks like a small submarine, was built in 1989. It is about 13,5m long and 5,7m high and can dive to depths below 500m. - Sapa-AP

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