After three days trapped in a cold and dark hulk with a dwindling air supply, the seven-man crew of an immobilized Russian mini-sub were brought to the surface of the Pacific Ocean alive Sunday after a British undersea vehicle cut through the cables and net that had snared the vessel on the sea floor, the Russian navy said.
"The mini-sub has surfaced, and all seven crew members are alive," Capt. Igor Dygalo, spokesman for Russia's Pacific Fleet, told Interfax. "They left the mini-sub unassisted and boarded the rescue boat which will take them to the ship Alages where medical help is at the ready."
The crewmembers will be transferred to land on a missile ship which is also carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The minister was dispatched to the Far East by President Vladimir Putin East to oversee the operation after an emergency meeting Saturday morning. Putin has yet to comment publicly on the drama.
The vessel surfaced on the waters at 4:26 p.m. and shortly afterward, the Russian navy announced that all the submariners were alive, Interfax reported.
The knife-edge drama was uncertain to the end. The British vessel had all but freed the mini-sub Sunday after it cut away two hoses and a steel cable, but it then malfunctioned and had to surface with some netting still entangling the mini-sub, called an AS-28 Priz. Officials said the Priz was caught on an underwater antenna system at a depth of around 600 feet, beyond the reach of Russian equipment.
Officials said the antenna was part of Russia's coastal monitoring system and was anchored with a weight of 60 tons. The British vehicle, called a Super-Scorpio, returned to the waters after a quick fix and cut away the last of the material binding the Priz to the sea. The robotic device was controlled by a British team on the deck of a Russian Navy ship above the stricken submarine. An American Super Scorpio and its team was also on standby on a Russian ship.
The Russian navy had earlier tried to drag the submarine and then tried to lift it up after looping cable around its belly in increasingly frantic efforts to save the crew. Both attempts failed.
"I would like to thank our British colleagues for their aid in saving the crew," Rear Adm. Vladimir Pepelyayev, deputy head of the Russian navy's general staff, said on Russian television. "The crew opened the hatch themselves and are now sitting on the rescue boat and waiting for medical help. From their outward appearances they look satisfactory."
Russian officials had repeated asserted that the sailors had enough air to survive until the rescue operation was completed. But they had offered a series of conflicting calculations over the last 24 hours on how much time the trapped men had. In the end, they had enough.
The British and American rescue vehicles were flown to the Russian Far East Saturday and then shipped by the Russian navy to the waters above the trapped mini-sub. The Russian government had requested international help when it realized it didn't have the equipment itself to reach the stranded vessel.
The quick Russian request for international help was in stark contrast to the failed operation to save the Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea after an explosion on board; 118 sailors perished in the submarine, at least 23 of them living a number of hours until the oxygen on the craft ran out.
Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow defense analyst, said the decision to ask for help was easier because unlike the Kursk, the mini-sub holds no military secrets.
The Kursk class of submarine was designed to sink aircraft carriers, and the Russians were determined to strictly limit access. They placed explosives around the wreckage of the Kursk to ward off Western navies.
"This is a salvage vessel, not a man of war," Felgengauer said. "The sensitivity is much lower."
But some Russians were unsettled by Western involvement, and one former commander expressed unease that the United States and Britain were being allowed into an area that he said was "stuffed with secrets."
"A secret cable runs through the area, and a foreign submarine detection system is located there, too," Eduard Baltin, a retired commander of the Black Sea Fleet, told Interfax, noting that the sub was trapped on sensitive equipment.
"This antenna is one of the main components of an active system for the long-range detection of submarines."
The need for outside help also exposes the failure of the Russian navy, in the wake of the Kursk disaster, to acquire the range of rescue equipment that would allow it to work independently.
Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, the commander of the Northern Fleet who was dismissed after the Kursk disaster, told the Russian media that despite promises to strengthen the navy's rescue abilities, it had acquired only some of what it needed.
"The best solution would be to use deep-water divers," Popov said. "We have divers who got special training. And we have special hydro suits in which divers can work even deeper than 190 meters. However, we do not have a vessel that can take them down that deep."
The Russian navy also has undersea vehicles similar to the Scorpio, but because they are attached to their motherships, they cannot be flown into the area as the Scorpios were.
The accident occurred Thursday during a combat training exercise, according to Russian naval officials. But Felgengauer and other analysts questioned what the mini-sub was doing on the ocean floor.
"To get in the vicinity of that equipment, which no doubt has an intelligence function, they were either so stupid to dive where they shouldn't or, more probably, they were there to inspect it, to see if the Americans planted some kind of bugs," Felgengauer said. "And that sub is not designed for that."