U.S. to Aid Rescue Mission for Russian Mini-Sub The U.S. Navy will aid in a rescue mission to save a seven-man crew of a Russian mini-submarine, trapped 625 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the Kamchatka Peninsula, north of Japan. The vessel's propeller was reportedly caught in a fishing net, and the crew has about 24 hours of oxygen left. Madeleine Brand talks with submarine expert Sherry Sontag about the rescue effort.
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U.S. to Aid Rescue Mission for Russian Mini-Sub

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U.S. to Aid Rescue Mission for Russian Mini-Sub

U.S. to Aid Rescue Mission for Russian Mini-Sub

U.S. to Aid Rescue Mission for Russian Mini-Sub

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4787167/4787168" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The U.S. Navy will aid in a rescue mission to save a seven-man crew of a Russian mini-submarine, trapped 625 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the Kamchatka Peninsula, north of Japan. The vessel's propeller was reportedly caught in a fishing net, and the crew has about 24 hours of oxygen left. Madeleine Brand talks with submarine expert Sherry Sontag about the rescue effort.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

A group of Russian sailors has less than 24 hours of oxygen left. The seven men are in a submarine that was caught up in a fishing net off Russia's Pacific coast. They're more than 600 feet down, too far to safely swim to the surface. The US is sending an unmanned submarine to help, but it may not get there in time. Joining me from New York is submarine expert Sherry Sontag.

And, Ms. Sontag, what's the prognosis here? Will the help arrive in time?

Ms. SHERRY SONTAG (Submarine Expert): This is a real cliffhanger and you just have to feel really sorry for these guys, because part of the problem is that they've got maybe 22 hours' worth of air, if the reports I'm reading are true. Our remote vehicle, called Scorpios, should take 15 hours to get to those guys. It will take at least an hour or two to get them on a boat and out to where these people are, so if they have any hope of doing this at all, everything has to go absolutely perfectly. And that's really the problem.

BRAND: Well, we had a similar situation five years ago--in fact, five years ago this month--when the Russian Kursk submarine sank during training exercises, so has anything changed in terms of search and rescue after that?

Ms. SONTAG: The answer to that is yes and no. What hasn't changed is there's still not enough gear around the world that is dedicated to rescue operations. If there were, there would never be--the rescue would never be more than a few hours away. But now rescue is a day to a few days away, and that can often be too much. What has changed is there's an effort to coordinate that gear.

BRAND: Well, how does it work? How does an unmanned submarine help sailors trapped in a submarine on the bottom of the ocean floor?

Ms. SONTAG: Well, in this case what happened to those poor sailors is they are actually in a rescue vehicle. These unmanned submersibles have cable-cutting abilities. If the only problem is that they have to cut a cable to free the other submarine's propeller to let it rise to the top, then everybody's in good shape. If there's more damage than that, it may not be enough. You have to just pray that everything goes like clockwork because every breath these men take is like another tick of the clock down from how long they have to live. If everything doesn't work absolutely perfectly, we're not going to get them out in time.

And again, the problem is there's just not enough rescue gear around the world all ready where it needs to be. You almost wish you had rescue stations like firehouses, that there would be somebody close enough to get to you no matter what. But submarine rescue has never been high priority. And one of the reasons it's not high priority is most submarine accidents are not survivable. Most of the time you're not lucky enough to be in only 600 foot of water. You go down so far that the pressure of the ocean is so much greater than the internal pressure of the submarine that you're crushed, so you have to be lucky enough to have an accident in relatively shallow water, which 600 foot is. It's not shallow enough to just get out and swim, but shallow enough that the submarine will survive sitting on the bottom.

BRAND: Sherry Sontag is co-author of the book "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage." She lives in New York City. Thanks for joining us, Sherry.

Ms. SONTAG: Thank you.

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