On board the Rainbow Warrior: seven tell tale of Siberian captivity

When Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior sailed into Siberian waters last week, its crew had the prescience to bring its own Kremlinologist, an East German defector named Wolfgang Fischer.

Not only was the marine biologist able to broadcast in Russian why the Greenpeace ship protested commercial whaling, but he could also reassure the ship's crew that its seven compatriots left behind in Soviet custody would be well treated and released soon.

''Wolfgang says the Russians like strong people and they like determination, '' the ship's cook, Cindy Stewart, said last week while the seven were still being held. ''We have a feeling they will be all right.''

As it turned out, Mr. Fischer was on target. The stories the seven told upon their release July 22 seemed to indicate that the Russians were just as astounded by the audacity of the Greenpeace band - six Americans and a Canadian - as was the Western world.

''You're a very brave man,'' the Soviet commander they knew only as ''the chief'' told Pat Herron of Seattle when his interrogation began.

The first glimpse Mr. Herron and the other invaders had of Siberia came around 4 a.m. local time as they motored through the fog in inflatable rubber dinghies. It had been skipper Peter Willcox's idea to ''attack at dawn,'' but even with that element of surprise he found it hard to believe how easily the Rainbow Warrior approached the whaling station at Loren undetected.

''Siberia wasn't at all what we expected,'' said David Rinehart, the mission's still photographer. ''We thought it would be flat, cold, and desolate. Instead, it was mountainous, cold, and desolate.''

They landed in an area off limits to Westerners. With leaflets printed in Russian and cameras in hand, three men and two women walked out of the fog in overstuffed, blaze-orange ocean survivor suits and approached some perplexed Siberian Eskimos.

One Eskimo tore up a leaflet, but others stood around and tried to communicate. Nearby, a pack of well-fed Siberian huskies were gorging themselves on a pile of whale meat cut into 1-by-1-foot chunks.

Their meeting was interrupted by a military truck rumbling down a hill. The truck disgorged 16 soldiers, says Nancy Foote. Four soldiers kneeled in one row, while the rest lined up behind. All had rifles.

Seeing this from his dinghy offshore, Herron motored in with a two-way radio linked with Fischer on the Rainbow Warrior, about a quarter-mile away. The soldiers relaxed when Fischer said over the radio that the Greenpeace group was unarmed.

The commander ordered a bonfire built to keep the captives, now numbering six , warm. Hot tea was served in white enamel cups.

After an hour, the Greenpeace captives were taken by truck into Loren, a village of dirt streets and tar paper houses. From there, they rode for 45 minutes in a helicopter with covered windows to a military base. After another truck ride, they wound up again in the helicopter and then back to Loren, where they were brought to a community center.

It was at the community center where they had their first long talks with ''the chief'' and an interpreter, whom they called ''Mr. English'' after he refused to give his name.

''They asked me what Nome was like,'' says Ms. Foote. ''I said it was a very expensive place . . . a rough town. Loren was clean and more orderly. But I can't say it was a happier place.''

They were told that if they were prosecuted for criminal violation of Soviet territory, they faced three years in prison. ''The chief was very disturbed by our lack of order,'' Herron said.

But he reacted ''with great interest'' when Chris Cook, Greenpeace's director in the United States, told how strongly the group felt about halting commercial whaling.

''We had a lot of discussion about Greenpeace, and our willingness to jeopardize the crew and the ship,'' Mr. Cook said.

After the initial interrogation and a strip search brought on when Mr. Rinehart absent-mindedly pulled out a knife to slice some cheese, they went by helicopter to a military barracks. Before they left, several villagers gave flowers to the two women prisoners.

At the barracks, the men and women were placed in separate rooms. Boredom became the group's biggest problem.

''The only thing we could do was eat, eat, and sleep,'' Herron said. ''We got stuffed at that place.'' Sympathetic soldiers brought them a Rubik's Cube and a chessboard.

Later during the first day, the Soviets brought in a seventh man from the Rainbow Warrior, Jim Henry, who had a hair-raising tale of a wild chase at sea.

The Rainbow Warrior had left Loren with Soviet vessels in pursuit. The crew had photographed the whaling station and the small pens surrounding it, evidence they hoped would show the world that the Soviets were feeding whale meat to mink instead of to aboriginal people, as the Soviets claimed.

Mr. Henry took the film and loaded it into a rubber boat, hoping to sneak back to Alaska while the Soviet ships pursued the Rainbow Warrior. But he was spotted by a helicopter, which swooped down upon him, hovering so close that he could have touched its wheels.

The chopper tried to ditch Henry in the sea with the backwash from its rotor blades, but for an hour, the Maine native managed to hold on, zigzagging through the fog. Whenever he made a particularly skillful maneuver, he said, he could see the copilot flash him a ''V'' sign. But finally he was dumped in the ocean. Exhausted, he gratefully accepted the sling dropped down by the helicopter.

When he met ''the chief'' later, he was told the raft and film ''were at the bottom of the ocean.''

That, however, wasn't true. The Rainbow Warrior crew found the empty raft spinning wildly at sea. Bruce Abraham of Seattle leaped into it from the deck. He injured himself in the process, but saved the boat and the film, which was flown into Anchorage.

''All the time we were detained, we were wondering, '(Does) the world know?' '' said Ms. Foote.

They found out on Friday, when they were returned to the Rainbow Warrior in a high-seas rendezvous with two Soviet ships. The reunion was witnessed by more than two dozen news media representatives on board the Greenpeace ship.

They passed off suggestions that they had become heroes. ''We are here to save whales,'' Herron said, though he wasn't sure he would do the same thing again.

Richard Mauer is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, and was on board the Greenpeace vessel in the Bering Sea when Soviet authorities released the seven captives.

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