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U.S. relief crew on way to Russian sub

Russian commander says oxygen can last through weekend

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau


United States

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. Navy crew and two robotic submersibles left for Russia's Pacific coast Friday in a race against time to rescue seven Russian sailors trapped in a mini-sub, U.S. Naval officials said.

Britain and Japan are also sending rescue missions. But it was unclear exactly how much time the efforts have.

Interfax news agency reported Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, commander of Russia's Pacific Fleet, as saying enough oxygen was aboard the sub to last more than a day.

Earlier, Fyodorov told Interfax the sailors had enough oxygen to carry them through Monday and that they were ordered "to stay in a horizontal position and save strength and air."

The drama started Thursday when the propeller of the AS-28 mini-submarine became entangled in fishing nets or cable during a military exercise off the Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia's east coast.

The mishap left the sub nearly 625 feet down on the Pacific floor in Beryozovaya Bay, 43 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the southern end of the peninsula.

The sailors could not swim to the surface nor could divers reach the vessel because it is too deep at 190 meters (623 feet) below the surface, said Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo.

Interfax reported Federov as saying early Saturday that the sub had been dragged 100 meters closer to the coast in an effort to get it to shallower water.

Crew members understand their situation and are not panicking, Dygalo said.

They were asked to lower their physical activity level, save electricity, and try to keep themselves warm. He said crew members had enough food and water for five days.

A U.S. Air Force C-5 carrying two robotic submersibles and 40 submariners, divers and other experts left Friday afternoon from the San Diego North Island Naval Station in California for the estimated 10-hour flight to Russia.

Once there, the crew and the rescue vehicles -- called Super Scorpios -- will be put aboard a Russian surface ship and taken to the site.

The Super Scorpios -- equipped with video cameras, lights and agile robotic arms that can cut up to one inch of steel cable -- will be piloted remotely and used to untangle the mini-sub, the Navy said.

The arms, which are called manipulators, are so dexterous that they can pick up a dime from the ocean floor, said Capt. Jacque Yost, Navy public affairs officer at the San Diego station.

A third U.S. underwater vehicle, called Deep Drone 8000, was to leave from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland later in the day.

The British Defense Ministry said it has dispatched a six-man crew and a remote-controlled submersible by an RAF C-17 transport. The Scorpio 45 has three cameras and cable-cutting equipment.

Japan said it sent a vessel carrying submarine rescue gear and three other ships, but they are unlikely to arrive until early next week.

Russia's swift request for assistance from the U.S. and Japanese navies contrasts with its handling of the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster of August 12, 2000.

In that accident, almost exactly five years ago, 118 seamen died after trying to survive for hours in the icy waters of the Barents Sea.

Some sailors survived for hours following explosions on board, but oxygen later ran out. Russian authorities were criticized for their handling of the crisis.

CNN's Barbara Starr, Nastya Anashkina, Carey Bodenheimer and Maxim Tkachenko contributed to this report.

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