Britain and U.S. rush to aid crew on Russian submarine

Estimates of how long the sailors could continue to breathe ranged from 18 hours to a couple of days.

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- Trapped under countless crushing tons of frigid water, seven sailors waited to see if their mates far above could find a way to pull them to safety before the oxygen in their tiny craft gives out.

In the second day since their sub got caught on an underwater antenna 600 feet under the Pacific, they may have felt some heartening motion. The commander of the Pacific Fleet said a surface rescue vessel had hooked onto the little sub early Saturday and had dragged it 100 yards toward shallower water where divers could presumably plunge in and release them.

The United States and Britain, meanwhile, were rushing to send sophisticated unmanned underwater robots to the disaster scene in Russia's Far East, north of Japan.

How much time remained was a matter of increasing doubt and anxiety. Estimates of how long they could continue to breathe ranged from at least 18 hours to a couple of days -- both those figures coming from the same commander.

Moscow asked for outside assistance within hours of news breaking about the sub's plight -- a speedy request that was a marked change since the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, when Russian officials waited until hope was all but exhausted. All 118 aboard the Kursk died.

The rescue effort underscores that promises by President Vladimir Putin to improve the navy's equipment have apparently had little effect. Authorities initially said a mini-sub would be sent to try to aid the stranded one, but the navy later said it wasn't equipped to go that deep.

News agencies quoted Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, commander of the Pacific Fleet, as saying Russian rescuers had managed to move the sub toward the shore, but the trawling technique being used was taking too long and rescuers were now trying to attach a tow line.

Both the U.S. and British rescue teams could reach the site off the Kamchatka Peninsula within time -- if earlier estimates that there was enough oxygen to keep the seven alive for 24 hours held true. Fyodorov said early Saturday that there was oxygen for "at least 18 hours," a distinctly less optimistic statement than his earlier assertion that the air would last into Monday.

"The situation is not simple. I don't want to overdramatize the situation, but also at the same time, I don't want to say it is absolutely, so to speak, easy and momentarily resolvable," Fyodorov said in comments televised on NTV.

By late Friday, Putin had made no public comment on the latest sinking.

The sailors were in contact with authorities and were not hurt, Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Alexander Kosolapov said. Their mini-submarine was trapped in Beryozovaya Bay, about 45 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the peninsular region in Russia's far east.

The United States and Britain were sending unmanned underwater rescue vehicles called Super Scorpios, and Japanese ships also were rushing to the area. It was the first time since the World War II era that a U.S. military plane has been allowed to fly to the peninsula, home to numerous Russian military facilities.

The flight from North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego Bay to Petropavlovsk on Russia's eastern coast was expected to take 10 to 12 hours. The Scorpios and their equipment will then have to be loaded aboard a vessel and taken to the stricken mini-sub's location.

"We're the 911 force for submarine rescue," said Navy Capt. Russell Ervin, a reserve with Deep Submergence Unit 5. "In our business, minutes count."

The British Scorpio, being carried on a Royal Air Force C-17 transport plane, was expected to arrive at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky at about 7 p.m. Saturday local time, or 1 a.m. CDT. The U.S. plane was expected to land about 10:30 p.m. local time, or 4:30 a.m. CDT.

The mini-sub, which became disabled after it was launched from a ship in a combat training exercise, was too deep to allow the sailors to swim to the surface on their own or for divers to reach it, Russian officials said.

The trapped AS-28, which looks like a small submarine, was built in 1989. It is about 44 feet long and more than 18 feet high. A vessel of the same type was used in the rescue efforts that followed the Kursk disaster.