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Russia Holds Out Hope for Trapped Sailors

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Almost exactly five years ago, the world watched helplessly as 118 crewmen died aboard the Russian submarine Kursk. Today, US and British underwater rescue specialists have joined the Russia Pacific fleet in an attempt to rescue seven men aboard a Russian minisub. The vessel known as the AS-28 has been stranded since Thursday morning. It's 625 feet under the sea off the Kamchatski Peninsula in the Russian Far East. The US and British teams arrived today with special remote-controlled minisubs of their own. According to the latest estimate, the oxygen on board, though, won't last more than half a day. NPR's Martha Wexler is following the story from Moscow.

And, Martha, do we know, first, whether these men are still alive?

MARTHA WEXLER reporting:

Well, Jennifer, you know, the Russian naval commanders have been saying now for the last couple of days that they are in contact with the crew and they said they heard from them just several hours ago. The spokesmen won't say exactly how they're communicating with the crew. They just say they're in technical contact and some former Navy men I've spoken to here say that that may mean that they're just sort of tapping. The men are alive. They are not panicking. They're keeping quite to cut down on their oxygen intake. It's pretty cold down there, between 41 and 44 degrees.

LUDDEN: What has been happening in the last few hours with the rescue?

WEXLER: Well, you know, it's taken the US and British teams quite a long time to get to this very remote area. So in the meantime, the Russians have been trying to lift the minisub from the ocean floor where its trapped 625 feet under. This seems like it would be very, very difficult do 'cause today we learn that it wasn't just a fishing net that ensnared in the propeller of this minisub. Actually a Russian senior commander said that the minisub had become entangled in the antenna cable of an underwater detection system. This is part of Russia's coastal defense. And the commander said that this cabling now is wrapped around not just the propeller but actually the body of the craft many times. And then, you know, if that wasn't bad enough to make matters worse, this underwater detection system is held down on the seabed by 60-ton anchors. So, you know, lifting this would seem, you know, a pretty difficult task if not impossible.

So it looks now as if the Russians are really pinning their hopes on the Americans and the British who have brought these minisubs of their own that are remote-controlled devices that go undersea and they have cutters on them and they're hoping that these cutters can slice through that cabling that's holding down the minisub.

LUDDEN: Well, with that information, do we know anything more now about how this minisub came to get caught in the first place?

WEXLER: Well, we don't really know what the minisub was doing in that area. This AS-28 is actually a rescue vehicle itself. There's some thought that maybe it had gone out to check on this underwater detection system perhaps to look for listening devices that may have been planted by an enemy nation or just to see that it was in correct, you know, form, that it wasn't in need of repairs.

LUDDEN: NPR's Martha Wexler in Moscow, thank you.

WEXLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennier Ludden
Martha Wexler