Russian sailors rescued with British help after three days trapped in a mini-submarine deep in the Pacific revealed today how they struggled with rapidly decreasing water and oxygen supplies while waiting anxiously in the darkness and cold.
The seven men had only six hours of oxygen left when they finally reached the surface, said Commander Ian Riches, the British naval officer who directed the effort to use a remote-controlled Scorpio underwater vehicle to free the submarine from fishing nets.
Strolling in the sunshine outside a military clinic, dressed in blue hospital uniforms, the submariners offered the first glimpse of the conditions for the seven men inside the cramped 44ft submarine, snagged by cables in almost 600ft of water off Russia’s remote Pacific coast.
“The main thing was the lack of water. There was also a problem with oxygen, not critical but the body felt it was not enough,” crew member Alexander Uibin said in footage broadcast on Rossiya television.
The Interfax news agency quoted a medical official in Kamchatka as saying that the crew only had three or four gulps of water a day. The official said the submariners had written farewell letters to their families several hours after their vessel became stranded on Thursday, the report said.
“We understood we were trapped. We just had to wait for a decision. When they said that they’ve put everything into action, we lay flat and began to wait,” said Gennady Volonin, a representative of the company that made the AS-28 mini-submarine who was on board with six submariners.
The men had worn thermal suits to protect them against temperatures of about 5C (40 F) and were told to lie flat and breathe as lightly as possible during the rescue effort, officials said. To conserve electricity, lights were turned off and contact with the surface was kept to a minimum.
The Scorpio, sent in response to Russia’s urgent call for help, arrived on Saturday and spent six hours the next day cutting away the fishing net cables that had snarled the Russian vessel and its propeller.
After breaking free, a few anxious minutes followed before the vessel floated up to the surface, and the seven men climbed out onto the deck.
“The team are over the moon that we have got these guys out alive,” said Riches as he arrived ashore at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky today.
Russian authorities thanked the British and praised the international rescue effort that included the United States, having appealed for help in a significant gesture to its former Cold War enemies.
But Moscow newspapers still criticised the Russian navy for waiting more than a day before revealing the submarine accident, accusing it of failing to learn the lessons of the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster and not investing necessary funds in upgrading rescue capabilities.
The Kommersant daily reported that the news only leaked out after a submariner’s wife made an anonymous call to a radio station in Kamchatka on Friday morning – nearly 24 hours after the mini-sub radioed an emergency signal.
Later that day, Russia asked Japan, Britain and the United States for help.
When the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in August 2000, Russian authorities held off asking for outside assistance until hope was nearly exhausted; all 118 crew members died.
“As with the Kursk, the navy command tried to cover up information about the accident, trying to deal with it themselves,” the Gazeta daily wrote. “Only when the situation got critical did the navy top brass appeal to foreign countries for help.”
President Vladimir Putin was criticised at the time of the Kursk sinking for reluctance to seek international help and for remaining on holiday as the disaster unfolded. As of Monday, he had made no public comment on the mini-sub drama.
Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov defended the navy’s rescue capabilities, saying Russia has a robotic vehicle similar to the Scorpio deployed at the Northern Fleet. He said disassembling it for transport to an airport and then flying it across the sprawling country would have taken longer than it took for the British vessel to arrive.
But the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Viktor Fyodorov was quoted by Interfax as saying that despite boasting a powerful submarine fleet, the Russian navy did not have the proper resources to mount underwater rescue operations.
Putin ordered the defence minister to launch an investigation and Kommersant reported today, citing military sources, that navy chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov faced dismissal after this latest embarrassment for the fleet.