A helicopter carrying tourists plunged into a deep volcanic crater lake on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East early Thursday, officials said, and rescue workers were searching the lake for up to eight missing tourists. Another eight people survived, according to reports.
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. A spokesperson for the reserve said the water temperature in the lake was 5-6 degrees Celsius (41-42.8 F), and survivors had to swim about 9 meters (29.5 feet) up to the surface from the sinking helicopter.
The Russian Emergencies Ministry said 13 tourists and three crew members were aboard the helicopter when it crashed, state news agency RIA Novosti reported. Moreover, two of the survivors were injured severely and have been transferred to a local intensive care unit, according to 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.
According to Russia’s Emergency Ministry, the sunk helicopter was found lying at 137 meters (449 feet) under water about 700 meters (2,296 feet) from the lake’s shore. 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 that has been used widely in Russia, ex-Soviet nations, and many other nations since the 1960s.
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. A passenger plane crash-landed in Kamchatka during bad weather in late June, killing all 28 people aboard.
Local news reports indicated that Vityaz-Aero is half-owned by Igor Redkin, a 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.