Oxygen supplies dwindling for seven trapped Russian sailors; U.S. mounts rescue effort
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – Russian, U.S. and British forces were scrambling to rescue seven Russian sailors trapped with dwindling oxygen supplies 600 feet under the Pacific on a mini-submarine caught on an underwater antenna.A Russian ship grabbed hold of the sub early Saturday and was trying to tow it to shallower waters where divers could free the sailors, a commander said, as a British military plane and a U.S. Air Force jet carrying remote-controlled underwater robots took off for the disaster scene in Russia’s Far East, north of Japan.Moscow asked for outside assistance within hours of news breaking about the sub’s plight – a speedy request that was a marked change since the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, when Russian officials waited until hope was all but exhausted. All 118 died aboard the Kursk.News agencies quoted Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, commander of the Pacific Fleet, as saying Russian rescuers had managed to move the sub 100 yards toward the shore, using a dragging or trawling technique that involves two ships pulling a sunken line. But he said the process was taking too long and rescuers were now trying to attach a tow line.Fyodorov’s statements followed a day of desperate rescue efforts and widely varying estimates of how much oxygen remained on the tiny vessel, which became stuck on Thursday.Both the U.S. and British rescue teams could reach the site off the Kamchatka Peninsula within time – if earlier estimates that there was enough oxygen to keep the seven alive for 24 hours held true. Fyodorov said early Saturday that there was oxygen for “at least 18 hours,” a distinctly less optimistic statement than his earlier assertion that the air would last into Monday.Along with earlier contradictory statements about whether a Russian ship had managed to snag the sub, the confusion over the air supply darkly echoed the sinking of the Kursk almost exactly five years ago. That disaster shocked Russians and deeply embarrassed the country by demonstrating how Russia’s once-mighty navy had deteriorated as funding dried up following the 1991 Soviet collapse.The new crisis is also 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.The rescue effort underscores 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 it wasn’t equipped to go that deep.Putin was sharply criticized for his slow response to the Kursk crisis and reluctance to accept foreign assistance. By late Friday, Putin had made no public comment on the latest sinking.The sailors were in contact with authorities and were not hurt, Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said. Their mini-submarine was trapped in Beryozovaya Bay, about 45 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the peninsular region in Russia’s far east.The United States and Britain were sending unmanned underwater rescue vehicles called Super Scorpios and Japanese ships also were rushing to the area. It was the first time since the World War II era that a U.S. military plane has been allowed to fly to the peninsula, home to numerous Russian military facilities.”When we got word the Russians were in need, we were more than happy to help out a friend,” said C-5 pilot Lt. Ryan Lindsay at Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego.The C-5 jet lifted off from North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego Bay after being loaded with the two Super Scorpio vehicles, cameras, cable cutters and arm-like manipulators that might be capable of freeing the submarine. The plane also carried 40 people to operate the vehicles.The flight to Petropavlovsk on Russia’s eastern coast was expected to take 10 to 12 hours. The Scorpios and their equipment will then have to be loaded aboard a vessel and taken to the stricken mini-sub’s location.”We’re the 911 force for submarine rescue,” said Navy Capt. Russell Ervin, a reserve with Deep Submergence Unit 5. “In our business, minutes count.”The British Scorpio, being carried on a Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane, was expected to arrive at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky at about 7 p.m. Saturday local time, or 2 a.m. EDT. The U.S. plane was expected to land about 10:30 p.m. local time, or 5:30 a.m. EDT.The mini-sub, which became disabled after it was launched from a ship 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, Russian officials said.Although the Russian navy reportedly ended its deep-sea diving training programs because of funding shortages a decade ago, it does have a device called the Kolokolchik, essentially an updated diving bell, that can be used for some underwater rescues.However, the mini-sub lies so deep that the device apparently would be useless.U.S. divers, presumably with better equipment, were rushing to the scene to help if necessary. In Belle Chasse, La., a marine services company loaded sophisticated deep sea diving suits and a diving crew aboard a military plane.Japan also dispatched a vessel carrying submarine rescue gear and three other ships to join salvage efforts, but they weren’t expected to arrive at the scene until early next week.Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo initially said on state-run Rossiya television that the sub got trapped when its propeller became entangled in a fishing net Thursday. But Fyodorov later said the sub was stuck on an antenna.It was unclear where the net would have come from, but scientists say the Pacific is rife with “ghost nets” – sometimes miles-long nets that have detached from fishing trawlers and now drift in the ocean.The trapped AS-28, which looks like a small submarine, was built in 1989. It is about 44 feet long and more than 18 feet high. A vessel of the same type was used in the rescue efforts that followed the Kursk disaster.Since Soviet times, the Kamchatka Peninsula has housed several major submarine bases and numerous other military facilities, and large areas of it have remained closed to outsiders.Although Putin was subject to strong criticism for his slow and seemingly callous response to the Kursk disaster, it did not weaken him politically. He was re-elected in 2004 and his supporters command an overwhelming majority in parliament, making the political fallout of the latest sinking likely minimal.