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Russian sub freed; all seven survive

A British submersible cuts the cables that trapped the minisub's crew 600 feet underwater.

By wire services
Published August 8, 2005

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia - Seven crew members aboard a Russian minisubmarine trapped for three days beneath the Pacific Ocean were pulled to safety today after a British remote-controlled vehicle cut away the undersea cables that had snarled it, Russian naval officials said.

Naval spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said the crew appeared to be in satisfactory condition and were being examined by ship medics.

The sub was raised after becoming stranded in 600 feet of water off the Pacific Coast on Thursday.

"The rescue operation has ended," Rear Adm. Vladimir Pepelyayev, deputy head of the navy's general staff, said on TV.

The AS-28 made an emergency surfacing and appeared about 4:26 p.m. local time, ITAR-Tass and RIA-Novosti reported.

Naval officials had been in regular contact with the crew, who faced dwindling oxygen and chilly temperatures.

Cmdr. Mark McDonald said British and American officials at the scene indicated that it was just a fishing net that had ensnared the minisubmarine, and that it was not caught on the antenna and cables of an antisubmarine surveillance system, as Russians had suspected.

Before the surfacing, Russian officials reported the submarine's crew of seven men had donned thermal suits, had 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 more than 600 feet beneath the surface.

The British craft sent video feeds to its operators on the surface and had implements that could cut thick steel cables. The vessel trimmed the material entangling the submarine - first described as a fishing net, later as the antenna of an underwater monitoring station, and again as fishing net - and allowed it to return to the surface.

Even if the Russian submarine had been damaged, it would still have floated 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 yet joined the rescue effort at midday today, local time.

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

Complicating the situation, the weather had been 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-Kamchatsky, 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 on Saturday 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, a 44-foot-long rescue craft known as an AS-28 Priz, became disabled also emerged, 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 in fact become entangled on an undersea military antenna.

Officials had said the Russian submarine was participating in a combat training exercise and got snarled on the antenna assembly.

Late on Saturday 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 has 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 own 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 the decline of Russia's military.

The new crisis is 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.

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.

President Vladimir V. Putin, publicly stung by the crisis, vowed to modernize the navy and overhaul the Russian military. The limits of that effort have been illustrated by the Priz accident and the urgent calls for foreign help to rescue its crew.

The Priz is itself a rescue vehicle, and was launched from a Russian naval vessel that usually carried two such rescue craft, according to the newspaper Kommersant. But the other Priz had been left on shore for repairs, the newspaper reported, and the Russian navy has been unable to bring any others to the aid of the stranded craft.

Russia has reacted more quickly in this mishap than it did during the Kursk crisis. The U.S. Embassy was swiftly asked for help, and on Saturday morning, Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov to fly to the region to supervise the rescue effort. Putin himself has remained publicly silent.

Officials said little about the crewmen, other than that they had intermittent communication with them.

Today, Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said officials were in constant contact with the crew "through acoustic signals," and that the crew's health was "satisfactory."

But risks abounded, and American submarine experts said the dwindling oxygen supply was not the only serious threat.

Norman Polmar, who has written books on the Russian navy, said it would not take long for the inside of the vessel to fall to the temperature of the surrounding sea - about 41 to 45 degrees.

Most vessels also have air-cleaning systems that remove carbon dioxide that builds as crew members breathe. If the battery were to have run out, the purification system would have shut down, and the buildup of carbon dioxide would have killed the crew before the lack of oxygen did, Polmar said.

--Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified August 8, 2005, 02:45:22]

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