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Sub sustained 'terrifying hole' before sinking

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2000

MOSCOW -- The sunken submarine Kursk has a "terrifying hole" on its starboard side, a top Russian official said Thursday as new underwater film indicated that an explosion wrecked the vessel and sent it plunging to the sea bottom in seconds.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said most of the nuclear submarine's 118 crew members were likely in the damaged section of the vessel, suggesting they probably were killed.

"If this damage is correct, then about 70 percent of the crew was killed right away," said Boris Kolyada, a recently retired Russian nuclear submarine commander familiar with the Kursk.

Russian rescue efforts over the past three days have failed to reach the crippled submarine, which is trapped 354 feet down in the Barents Sea. Rescue teams from Britain and Norway cannot get to the site until the weekend.

Russian theories about what befell the vessel on Saturday range from the explosion to a collision with a ship to contact with a World War II mine.

The Russian navy said the new film of the stricken sub suggested that an explosion had hit the Kursk and that the vessel is sinking into the mud of the sea bottom.

Klebanov said experts reviewing days of rescue efforts to save the Kursk think the submarine hit "a huge, heavy object."

"A rather big part of the crew was in the part of the boat that was hit by the catastrophe that developed at lightning speed," Klebanov said in Murmansk, home of the Russian Northern Fleet.

The film showed enormous damage to the forward half of the submarine, including the conning tower, that would have sent the vessel to the bottom in seconds, navy officials said. The control room where most of the crew work is below and next to the conning tower, suggesting many sailors would have had no time to escape when the submarine went down.

The Associated Press reported that American submarines monitoring Russian navy exercises when the Kursk went down detected two explosions. The second explosion was much larger than the first, the AP said, citing U.S. officials whom it did not identify.

Russia's slow, confused and often-contradictory response to the disaster has brought a wave of criticism at home. The accident was not announced until two days after it happened, and crew members' relatives learned of the sinking not from the military but from TV.

For those loved ones, the wait has been brutal.

Ludmila Milyutina, whose son Andrei is aboard the Kursk, said that when she called a government hotline for information on the disaster, she was told, "Go to Murmansk and ask journalists."

"They are cold now, and have no lights," said Vyacheslav Olnev, a Murmansk factory worker who served on a submarine.

Russian rescuers continued their agonized efforts Thursday to reach the crew, whose status is unclear. Russian officials have repeatedly given contradictory reports of whether rescuers had detected any signs of life from within the Kursk.

High-tech foreign teams whose help was requested only a day before began a painfully slow trip that won't get them to the disaster scene before the weekend.

Adm. Alexander Poboi, Russian navy deputy chief, said there could be enough air aboard the Kursk for the crew to survive two to three weeks. But oxygen equipment could have been destroyed or damaged, and Klebanov said "there have been no sounds for quite a long time" from inside the Kursk.

And in another somber assessment, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said the situation was "close to catastrophic."

The Kursk can carry up to 28 torpedoes and anti-submarine missiles, each with warheads weighing up to 1,000 pounds. An explosion involving even a few torpedoes would have caused catastrophic damage, officers said.

Russian officials have said the Kursk carried no nuclear weapons.

Rescue capsules have been trying for the past three days to link up with the submarine, but were again driven back again Thursday by racing currents and swirling sand in the inky darkness.

Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo told Interfax news agency the ship's sinking into the mud "does not significantly impact the rescue operation." The submarine is leaning at a sharp angle, which impedes rescue work.

After resisting Western offers of assistance for days, Russia on Wednesday turned to Norway and Britain. But it took almost a full day after that for a Norwegian ship carrying a British rescue mini-submarine to set sail, and it was not expected to arrive until late Saturday. A second ship carrying Norwegian divers was expected to arrive Sunday.

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