MOSCOW (AP) — A helicopter carrying tourists plunged into a deep volcanic crater lake on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East early Thursday, and rescue workers were searching in the lake for up to eight people missing, officials said. At least eight others reportedly survived.
The Mi-8 helicopter sank in Kurile Lake, which was formed in a volcano caldera and crater and is located in the Kronotsky nature reserve. The water temperature in the lake was 5-6 degrees Celsius (41-42.8 F), and the survivors had to swim about 9 meters (29.5 feet) up to the surface from the sinking helicopter, spokespeople for the reserve said.
Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said 13 tourists and three crew members were aboard the helicopter when it crashed, state news agency RIA Novosti said. Two of the survivors were badly injured and have been taken to the intensive care unit at a local hospital, according to the Interfax news agency.
Rangers in the nature reserve reported hearing the helicopter approaching the lake and then the sound of it hitting the surface and said they immediately dispatched two boats to the crash site.
“The water was really cold. The fog was low,” one of the survivors, Viktor Strelkin, said in a video interview released by the government of Kamchatka. He said the rescue boats arrived just in time after he swam up to the lake surface.
“I couldn’t save myself further. My sneakers were dragging me down, I barely managed to take them off,” Strelkin said. “I couldn’t swim on the stomach and realized that in these conditions I wouldn’t be able to hang in much longer. Luckily, within five minutes, two boats with people arrived.”
Russian news reports did not list the nationalities of the tourists aboard the helicopter, but said that most of them were from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Regional prosecutors were investigating a possible violation of flight safety rules.
Russia’s Emergency Ministry said that the sunk helicopter was found lying at a depth of 137 meters (449 feet), about 700 meters (2,296 feet) away from the shore of the lake. Kurile Lake is up to 316 meters (1,037-feet) deep and covers an area of 77 square kilometers (30 square miles).
The helicopter, manufactured during the Soviet era 37 years ago, was operated by Vityaz-Aero, a local private carrier. Its director said it had recently undergone maintenance and was in good shape.
The Mi-8 is a two-engine helicopter designed in the 1960s. It has been used widely in Russia, ex-Soviet countries and many other nations.
The area where the crash occurred can only be reached by helicopters, and fog complicated rescue efforts, the RIA Novosti reported. A total of 15 rescuers, including six divers, were involved in the rescue operation, according to Interfax.
Kamchatka, the pristine peninsula which is home to numerous volcanoes is known for its rugged beauty and rich wildlife. The Kronotsky reserve, which has Russia’s only geyser basin, is a major tourist attraction on Kamchatka and helicopters regularly carry tourists there.
Quickly changing weather often makes flights risky. Last month, an An-26 passenger plane crashed on Kamchatka while approaching an airport in bad weather, killing all 28 people on board.
Russian news reports said Vityaz-Aero is half-owned by Igor Redkin, a millionaire businessman who is a member of the Kamchatka regional legislature. Redkin was placed under house arrest earlier this week after he shot and killed a man who was rummaging in a garbage bin. Redkin said the shooting was accidental after he mistook the victim for a bear.
There are an estimated 20,000 bears on Kamchatka, and they occasionally roam into settlements looking for food.