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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Fishing Net Tied Sub to a Listening Device

NEW YORK -- The small submarine rescued Sunday had become trapped beneath the Pacific when an old fishing net disabled its propeller and tied the vessel to an undersea Russian surveillance device larger than a drive-in movie screen, according to U.S. divers sent to help rescue the seven crew members.

The divers said the submarine had been knotted so tightly against the listening device that a British submersible could not maneuver close enough to clip all the netting during the tense, five-hour operation to free the craft.

Instead, after the British vessel's robotic arm had snipped most of the snarled netting, Russian commanders on a nearby ship ordered the submarine's crew to blow pressurized air through its ballast tanks. That lightened the submarine, the divers said, and propelled it upward with enough force to break the last thick strands of nylon pinning it down.

Four U.S. Navy divers were on a ship to help with the rescue. In telephone interviews Monday, two of them said the red-and-white-striped Russian vessel floated to the surface, taking two to three minutes to rise from its trap 190 meters under the surface off the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Though the submarine's ascent was uncontrolled, it popped safely to the surface between two rescue ships "out of pure luck," said one of the divers, Lieutenant Commander Gerard Demers.

The account by the divers helped to sort out a mix of contradictory reports by Russian officials during the three-day race to reach the submarine before the sailors, huddled together in the cold and dark, ran out of air.

After the 13.4-meter-long vessel became trapped Thursday, Russian fleet commanders first said it was entwined in a fishing net. But by Friday, some officials had shifted to saying that it was snagged on cables connected to an undersea antenna, a listening device meant to detect foreign submarines lurking off a major Russian naval base nearby.

The device is thought to be a large hydrophone, which scans the depths for the sounds of submarines, and it seems to be a vestige of Cold War cat-and-mouse games that took place beneath the sea. Some Russian officials said the vessel had been inspecting the device when it got snagged.

Tom Perkins, a U.S. Navy master diver, said video images beamed up by the British craft had been hard to make out -- "kind of a dark puzzle" -- making it even more difficult for the British operators controlling the robotic cutting arm. They directed the cutting arm with a joystick from a control van that had been welded atop the Russian rescue ship. "It was a real mess," he said by telephone.

The divers are part of the Navy's Deep Submergence Unit, based in San Diego. They flew to Kamchatka on Friday along with tons of rescue gear, including two U.S. submersibles similar to the British one. The British vessel arrived first, and the U.S. divers accompanied it to the rescue scene. Western officials have said the Russian sailors were rescued about three to six hours before they would have run out of air.

One of the submariners, Captain Valery Lepetyukha, said Tuesday that the submarine had been sent to investigate an underwater surveillance antenna that had got entangled in fishing nets, RIA-Novosti reported.

He insisted, however, that oxygen supplies could have lasted another 36 hours and denied media reports that crew members had been writing farewell messages to their loved ones.

Also Tuesday, Roman Kolbanov, the Pacific Fleet's deputy military prosecutor, said a criminal investigation had been opened into the incident.

He said an initial investigation had established violations by officials responsible for preparing and overseeing the submarine's mission.