Race to save mini-submarine crew

Crews are racing to save a Russian mini-submarine trapped in the remote Pacific with seven sailors on board and oxygen supplies dwindling, navy officials said today.

Crews are racing to save a Russian mini-submarine trapped in the remote Pacific with seven sailors on board and oxygen supplies dwindling, navy officials said today.

How much oxygen remained was unclear. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Viktor Fyodorov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the supply would last until sometime Monday. However, he earlier told Russia’s Channel One television that air would last “a little more than 24 hours".

Naval authorities were trying to figure out how to raise the vessel from the seabed where it got caught on a fishing net at a depth of some 190 metres, with only enough air on the craft to last another day, a navy spokesman said.

Nine Russian ships were at the site, and the US and Britain were scrambling to send underwater vehicles that might assist in the rescue, officials said. Japanese ships also were rushing to the area.

However, it was unclear if there was enough oxygen aboard the small vessel - designed for three crew members – to keep seven sailors alive until help reaches the accident site.

“There is air remaining on the underwater apparatus for a day – one day,” Capt. Igor Dygalo said on state-run Rossiya television. “The operation continues. We have a day – and intensive, active measures will be taken to rescue the AS-28 vessel and the people aboard.”

The vessel’s propeller became entangled in a fishing net yesterday, trapping the craft, Dygalo said.

The mini-submarine was trapped in Beryozovaya Bay, about 47 miles south of Kamchatka’s capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, an official with the military prosecutor’s office in Russia’s Far East said.

The vessel, 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, officials said.

The sailors were in contact with authorities and were not hurt, Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said in televised comments. Authorities were preparing to send down a similar vessel to assess the situation, he said.

But a navy spokesman in Moscow, Dmitry Burmistrov, later said authorities had not involved the second vessel because it was not equipped to go deep enough.

Two surface ships were sweeping the area with nets in the hope of wresting the trapped vessel from the sea floor, adding that the rescue effort would continue into the night, Dygalo said. He told NTV television that authorities were working out a rescue plan but did not elaborate.

The US was sending an unmanned underwater vehicle equipped with cameras, cable cutters and arm-like manipulators that might be capable of freeing the submarine, Lt. Maria Miller, a US Navy spokeswoman, said in Washington.

Britain is sending a Scorpio submarine, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow said. The vehicle was being loaded onto a Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane at Scotland’s Prestwick airport and was expected to arrive at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky early tomorrow, spokesman Anton Atrashkin said.

The accident occurred almost exactly five years after the nuclear submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea after explosions on board, killing all 118 seamen aboard in a painful blow to the Russian navy.

Some sailors survived for hours after the accident as oxygen ran out, and Russian authorities were sharply criticised for their handling of the crisis.

The AS-28, which looks like a small submarine, was built in 1989. It is about 13 metres long and 6 metres high and can dive to depths below 500 metres. 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.

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