MOSCOW -- A helicopter carrying tourists plunged into a deep volcanic crater lake on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia early Thursday, leaving eight people missing and feared dead.
The Mi-8 helicopter crashed and sank in Kurile Lake, which was formed in a volcano caldera and crater and is located in the Kronotsky nature reserve. Another eight people who are known to have survived had to swim about 9 meters (29.5 feet) up to the lake's surface from the sinking helicopter in water that was 5-6 degrees Celsius (41-42.8 F), spokespeople for the reserve said.
Russia's Emergencies Ministry said 13 tourists and three crew members were aboard the helicopter when it crashed in deep fog. Rangers in the nature reserve heard the helicopter flying low over the lake and then the sound of it hitting the surface and immediately rushed in boats to the crash site, reaching it minutes after the helicopter sank.
Two of the eight survivors were badly injured and have been taken to the intensive care unit at a local hospital, officials said. Officials said most of the tourists on the flight were from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Rescue teams rummaged the lake until dark and were set to resume the search Friday morning, but officials said the missing people likely got trapped in the sunken helicopter and died.
One of the survivors, Viktor Strelkin, said he had been asleep on the helicopter when a stream of water hitting his face woke him. After unfastening his safety belt, he was thrown to the top of the helicopter, where an air bubble allowed him to take a breath before he escaped through a broken cockpit window.
“I do free diving, and that allowed me to remain calm,” Strelkin said in a video released by Kamchatka authorities. “The water was really cold. The fog was low. People on the surface were crying for help.”
He said he barely managed to take off his sneakers, which were dragging him down, and immediately realized that he and others wouldn't survive long in the frigid water.
“It was cold, and it was clear that we were all going to die quickly,” Strelkin said. “The first two boats arrived in just five minutes. If they took another five minutes to arrive, people would likely drown.”
The Emergencies 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.
Regional prosecutors were investigating a possible violation of flight safety rules.
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 until the skies cleared hours after the crash.
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.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed.