A Russian ship grabbed hold of the sub early Saturday and was trying to tow it to shallower waters where divers could free the sailors, a commander said, as a British military plane and a U.S. Air Force jet carrying remote-controlled underwater robots took off for the disaster scene in Russia's Far East, north of Japan.
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 died aboard the Kursk.
News agencies quoted Adm. Viktor Fyodorov, commander of the Pacific Fleet, as saying Russian rescuers had managed to move the sub 100 yards toward the shore, using a dragging or trawling technique that involves two ships pulling a sunken line. But he said the process was taking too long and rescuers were now trying to attach a tow line.
Fyodorov's statements followed a day of desperate rescue efforts and widely varying estimates of how much oxygen remained on the tiny vessel, which became stuck on Thursday.
"They've at least been quicker on the uptake with accepting Western aid and that's a major step forward," Flynn said.
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.
Along with earlier contradictory statements about whether a Russian ship had managed to snag the sub, the confusion over the air supply darkly echoed the sinking of the Kursk almost exactly five years ago. That disaster shocked Russians and deeply embarrassed the country by demonstrating how Russia's once-mighty navy had deteriorated as funding dried up following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The new crisis is also highly embarrassing for Russia, which will hold an unprecedented joint military exercise with China later this month, including the use of submarines to settle an imaginary conflict in a foreign land. In the exercise, Russia is to field a naval squadron and 17 long-haul aircraft.