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Trapped Russian Submarine Rescued


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Seven Russian submariners, alive and in good health, were rescued today by an unmanned British craft. The Russians had been trapped 600 feet under the western Pacific Ocean since last Thursday with their oxygen supply dwindling and worries increasing about the prospect of their safe return to the surface. NPR's Martha Wexler reports from Moscow on the successful rescue operation.

MARTHA WEXLER reporting:

The Russian navy quickly realized it needed help to rescue the mini-sub. Japan deployed ships and Britain and the US sent Scorpio robotic vehicles equipped with cutters to slice through the tangle of cables that was holding down the Russian craft. Commander Jonty Powis of the Royal Navy explained how the British Scorpio freed the mini-sub in an operation that took more than three hours.

Commander JONTY POWIS (Royal Navy): The vehicle itself has a golf bag of tools which it can deploy and cutting things under water is a relatively routine task. The importance here, of course, was that we had to make sure that we didn't entangle the ROV, the vehicle, in any of the debris which had trapped the Russian guys, in order that we could continue our rescue in as timely a manner as possible.

WEXLER: The commander of Russia's Pacific fleet, Admiral Viktor Fyodorov, acknowledged the technical prowess and high degree of professionalism of the British rescuers.

Admiral VIKTOR FYODOROV (Russia's Pacific Fleet): (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: Admiral Fyodorov tipped his sailor's cap to their experience and said the equipment from the Royal Navy secured the victory, freeing the Russian craft. He also praised the courage of the seven crew members; heroes, he called them. They had to lie motionless in thermal suits to conserve oxygen and survive the 76 hours in the damp, cold cabin.

Adm. FYODOROV: (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: Fyodorov said after the craft was cut free, the crew brought it up, equalized the pressure and opened the hatch on their own. The first words from crewman Valeri Lapuchuk(ph) were `Everyone's alive.'

Their ordeal began Thursday morning, local time, when the mini-sub, which was itself designed as a rescue craft, became trapped on the sea bed. Russian spokesmen said a fishing net had become caught in the propeller. The Russians tried to attach lines to the mini-sub to haul it up. On Saturday the vice chairman of the Russian naval staff, Admiral Vladimir Pepelyaev, acknowledged that something more than a fishing net had snared the craft.

Admiral VLADIMIR PEPELYAEV (Chairman, Russian Naval Staff): (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: Pepelyaev said the mini-sub was also snarled in an undersea detection device, part of Russia's coastal monitoring system. And this acoustic station, a large metal grid with communications cables attached, was weighted down with 60-ton anchors. With the oxygen supply running out fast, the Russians were left to wait for the foreigners to come halfway round the world to the seas off the Kamchatka peninsula.

Despite the successful outcome, the three-day trial of the mini-sub highlighted the fact that, five years after suffering the embarrassment of losing a nuclear submarine, the Kursk, the Russian navy still lacks basic rescue equipment. Analysts say the one lesson Russia has learned from the Kursk tragedy, which claimed 118 lives, is to ask for foreign help promptly. Martha Wexler, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martha Wexler