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Mini-Sub Crew Rescued After 3 Days

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY -- A British remote-controlled vehicle cut loose a Russian mini-submarine that had been snarled on undersea cables deep in the Pacific, and the mini-sub surfaced Sunday with all seven crew safe after a three-day ordeal in frigid darkness.

All the men aboard the Priz AS-28 mini-submarine appeared to be in satisfactory condition, naval spokesman Captain Igor Dygalo said.

About five hours after their rescue, six of them were brought to a hospital on the mainland for examination, waving to relatives as they went in. The seventh was kept aboard a hospital ship for unspecified reasons.

At the edge of the gangplank leading off the ship that brought the crew to shore, mini-sub commander Lieutenant Vyacheslav Milashevsky held a long and solemn salute, then a slight smile crossed his face. Pale, but walking confidently, he responded "fine" when journalists clamored to know how he felt. He climbed into a van for the trip to the hospital.

His wife, Yelena, said she was overjoyed at news the crew had been rescued. "My feelings danced. I was happy, I cried," she told Channel One television.

Another crew member in the van looked from side to side, gazing at the green trees and gray skies.

The United States had also sent remote-controlled underwater vehicles for the rescue, but they arrived several hours after the British vehicle and were not used.

"I can only thank our English colleagues for their joint work and the help they gave in order to complete this operation within the time we had available -- that is, before the oxygen reserves ran out," Rear Admiral Vladimir Pepelyayev, deputy head of the Navy's General Staff, told reporters in Moscow.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who went to Kamchatka to supervise the operation, praised the international efforts and said, "We have seen in deeds, not in words, what the brotherhood of the sea means."

President Vladimir Putin had made no public comment about the mini-sub drama by Sunday afternoon.

The red-and-white-striped sub surfaced at around 4:26 p.m. local time (7:26 a.m. Moscow time), some three days after becoming stranded in 190 meters of water off the Pacific Coast. It was carrying six sailors and a representative of the company that manufactured it.

Earlier, Russian ships had tried to tow the sub and its entanglements to shallower water where divers could reach it, but were able to move it only about 60 to 100 meters in the Beryozovaya Bay, about 15 kilometers off the Kamchatka coast.

Then, a British remote-controlled Super Scorpio cut away the cables that had snarled the 13.2-meter mini-submarine. Once the obstructions were removed, there was a last spasm of anxiety as the submarine remained still.

"Then after two or three minutes, it broke free and within three minutes it surfaced," Ivanov said.

The British vehicle was sent after the Russian Navy made an urgent appeal for international help -- unlike during the August 2000 sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk, when authorities held off asking for outside assistance for days. All 118 aboard the Kursk died.

The men aboard the small submarine waited out tense hours as rescuers raced to free them before the vessel's air supply ran out. The sailors put on thermal suits to protect them against temperatures of about 5 degrees Celsius, were told to lie flat and breathe as lightly as possible, officials said. To conserve electricity, the submarine's lights were kept off and there was only sporadic contact with the surface.

"The crew were steadfast, very professional," Pepelyayev said on Channel One television. "Their self-possession allowed them to conserve the air and wait for the rescue operation."

Officials said the mini-submarine was participating in a combat training exercise Thursday when it got caught on an underwater antenna assembly that is part of a coastal monitoring system. The system was anchored with a weight of about 60 metric tons, according to news reports.

The 76-Hour Race to Save the Priz

(All times are in Kamchatka time, nine hours ahead of Moscow.)

Thursday, Aug. 4

11:48 a.m. – In Beryozovaya Bay off Kamchatka, the Priz, an AS-28 mini-submarine, is lowered from the rescue ship Georgy Kozmin on a training observation mission.
1 p.m. – The Priz issues a Mayday call.
2 p.m. – It becomes clear that the Priz's propellers have been snared by a cable or a fishing net.
3 p.m. – The Navy organizes a rescue operation.

Friday, Aug. 5

11:59 a.m. – RIA-Novosti, citing military sources, broadcasts the first announcement about the accident: "A military submarine has sunk in Kamchatka. Its crew is alive and needs help."
6:16 p.m. – The Pacific Fleet's spokesman Alexander Kosolapov announces that he is in contact with the families of the crew and that the submariners' condition is fine.
6:30 p.m. – Britain and the United States are made aware of the incident via the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Forum, which was set up after the Kursk sinking in August 2000.
6:55 p.m. – At Russia's request, a Japanese rescue vessel and two trawlers are sent to Kamchatka.
7:10 p.m. – It becomes known that the submarine is at a depth of 190 meters and that is impossible for the submariners to free themselves.
7:33 p.m. -- The Navy says that the accident was caused by a fishing net that snarled the submarine's propellers. The area is trawled in the hope of pulling the Priz free or breaking the net.
9 p.m. – The Navy contacts the United States for help.
9:43 p.m. – Representatives of the Priz's manufacturer say that the submarine was in need of repair. Navy officials deny the claim.

Saturday, Aug. 6

12:51 a.m. – After a series of unsuccessful attempts to free itself, the Priz switches to energy-saving mode.
2:10 a.m. – Britain officially offers technical assistance to Russia for the rescue operation.
4:34 a.m. – The Navy says an unmanned underwater vessel has examined the Priz and found no damage to the submarine.
5:09 a.m. – News agencies report that a Navy vessel has begun to tow the Priz it to shallower waters.
5:30 a.m. – The Navy denies the report about the towing operation, saying its forces are only preparing for the operation.
6 a.m. – A Royal Air Force Boeing C-17 aircraft leaves Prestwick Airport, Glasgow, for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, carrying the Scorpio-45 rescue vessel and six operating crew, the British Embassy in Moscow says.
6:26 a.m. – The military says is not sure that it has hooked the Priz. The naval antenna system's 60-ton anchor is complicating the tow.
7:26 a.m. – The Navy says it has managed to hook the Priz.
10:30 a.m. – A U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo plane leaves Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, where the U.S. Navy's deep submergence unit is located.
7 p.m. – The British plane arrives in Elizovo airport in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
8:15 p.m. – The 32-member U.S. Navy team and two Super Scorpio remotely operated vehicles arrive in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Sunday, Aug. 7

3 a.m. – The Navy says it has looped cables under the Priz and will try to lift it.
8 a.m. – Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov arrives in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
10 a.m. – The British Scorpio-45 arrives at the scene on board a Russian ship.
11:30 a.m. – The British crew begins lowering the Scorpio to free the Russian submarine.
4:26 p.m. – The Priz surfaces.
4:43 p.m. – The Navy says all seven submariners on the Priz are alive.

(The Moscow Times 08.viii.05)

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