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Time Running Out for Russian Sub Crew


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

US and British teams have landed and are moving toward the site in Kamchatka where the Russian navy is still struggling to rescue the seven men on a mini-sub that's been stranded under the Pacific since Thursday. They've now looped a cable around the sub to try and raise it off the sea floor. There are conflicting reports about how much oxygen is left. By some estimates, it may already have run out. The incident certainly revives memories of the disaster that killed 118 men on the submarine Kursk five years ago. NPR's Martha Wexler is in Moscow.

Thanks for being with us.

MARTHA WEXLER reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And what do we know about the predicament of the mini-sub now and what's preventing it from getting to the surface?

WEXLER: Well, this mini-sub, which is called an AS-28--it's actually a rescue vessel itself--still stranded under the water. The last time we had a precise figure it was 625 feet under the sea off the Kamchatka Peninsula. And, you know, yesterday Russian officials were saying that, you know, they believed a fishing net had become entangled in the propellor. And we're not hearing very much about this fishing net today, but the vice chief of the Russian naval command said today that this mini-sub is now really badly entangled in an antennae cable that's apparently part of Russia's underwater monitoring system. And the Russian media say that this cable, which is now wrapped and wrapped and wrapped around not only the propellor of the mini-sub but actually the body of the mini-sub, covering about a third of the vessel, that this cable is held down to the bottom of the sea by 60-ton anchors.

So it seems that it's going to be very hard to get this thing lifted, and, you know, the situation for the seven crew members would seem to be pretty dire. It's cold and, you know, we've had these different reports about how much oxygen is on board. You know, some specialists we talked to today suggested that really there was only as little as 30 hours worth when they went out on Thursday. Now that we can't confirm...

SIMON: Yeah.

WEXLER: ...but it doesn't look good.

SIMON: Any communication from the vessel?

WEXLER: Well, the Russians say they have communicated with the men. It's not voice communication. They are calling it technical contact. They don't elaborate. Some defense experts we've talked to felt that that may mean they're just--the men are tapping. And the last we heard that there was contact was a few hours ago.

WEXLER: Now the--you have American and British rescue teams who are on their way with special equipment. Our latest reports, by the way, are--well, it's a remote area. They have landed in one stage of it and they're trying to proceed to that area. It's not easy to get to. What kind of technology do they have that might help?

WEXLER: Well, the Americans have these Super Scorpios. The Brits have a Scorpio. This is also a mini-sub that can dive at great, great depths, and it's remotely controlled. They have these manipulating arms that are controlled remotely, and they have cutters that can cut through cable, which would be very helpful in this situation, where you have all this cable that's wrapped around and holding down...

SIMON: It could also take...

WEXLER: ...the mini-sub.

SIMON: ...a lot of time, though, too, which it doesn't seem to be a lot of time left.

WEXLER: Yeah. That is a very, very great concern because, you know, in addition to the fact that, yes, the Americans and Brits have landed with their equipment, they're now getting out to the site, out to sea, and the latest we heard from the Russian television was the commanders expected this joint operation will begin at about noon Washington time.

SIMON: Last question: Weren't there a lot of Russians who might have assumed that underwater rescue techniques have improved since the loss of the Kursk?

WEXLER: Well, I don't know that anybody assumed that. Actually, the consensus in the newspapers today seems to be that we've learned nothing since the Kursk disaster except to call for foreign help a little bit sooner and that our rescue capabilities remain quite poor, that, you know, one submariner said, you know, `Well, we've now gotten deep-sea diving suits for divers, but we don't have the support vessels.' So the feeling is that that hasn't changed. The rescue capabilities haven't changed nor has the, you know, reluctance to be completely forthcoming changed.

SIMON: OK. Thanks very much, NPR's Martha Wexler in Moscow.

WEXLER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Martha Wexler