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Officials: Sub crew likely dead

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2000

MOSCOW -- The Russian Navy said Saturday that all 118 members of the crew of the wrecked nuclear-powered submarine Kursk are now probably dead and that in the frantic initial hours trapped in the sunken vessel survivors signaled their comrades on the surface to send down air because their sealed compartments were filling with water.

What little hope remained for any survivors was pinned on the arrival of a British mini-sub and Norwegian divers. The divers approached the site after midnight this morning, but would reportedly not start their dive until after dawn -- apparently to avoid diving in darkness.

RTR television reported the divers would start work at 6 this morning. They will try to open the Kursk's damaged hatch and determine whether the pressure inside is low enough for anyone to have survived inside, RTR reported. If it is, they will summon the British mini-submarine and guide it to the hatch.

British commander Mike Finney said the divers would go down first to check out safety conditions for the mini-sub. "They will also have a good look around to see if they can detect any signs of life," he said.

On Saturday, a senior Russian admiral said some of the sailors may have attempted what would have been a suicidal exit through a rear hatch, thinking they could swim to safety and causing one of the last dry compartments to flood.

Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of Russia's Northern Fleet, said most of the sailors died in the first minutes after a still-unexplained explosion sent the Kursk crashing to the seabed a week ago. He reported his preliminary findings in a grim statement broadcast on state television from the Northern Fleet headquarters at Severomorsk.

The Kursk disappeared Aug. 12 during maneuvers in the Barents Sea. Western intelligence sensors and seismic monitoring stations in Norway detected two underwater explosions in the area of the submarine. The second blast was much more powerful.

Motsak, speaking from his desk without any prepared text, said the accident "was the worst catastrophe that I personally have known, and the worst in the history of the submarine fleet."

He said the navy was now investigating three possible causes of the blast: a collision with another vessel or a World War II mine, or some unknown internal accident that set off the explosion that shook the submarine.

Most of the crew died in the first minutes of the disaster, he said, just after the explosion destroyed the submarine's forward section.

Motsak interspersed his factual presentation with descriptions of the drama that has gripped Russia since Monday morning, when the navy first reported the sinking. The rescue flotilla located the battered attack submarine with twin nuclear reactors at 4:55 a.m. Aug. 13 lying on the seabed in 350 feet of water, the admiral said. Russian surface ships soon afterward detected noises from the bottom.

"We heard noises by crew members acting in accordance with the rules of organization of communication with sunken submarines," he said. "Analysis of the noises from the tail sections showed that the crew members were telling us that water was coming into the sections -- it was infiltrating -- and they asked us to supply air."

In a separate news conference Saturday night, the admiral acknowledged rescuers had been unable to supply the air to the sailors. "That's a possible construction defect, on which we'll have to work in future submarines," he said.

Some crew members, desperate to escape the flooding, he said, may have tried to open the rear hatch of the Kursk, causing sea water to flood in and kill them.

"The systems responsible for a tight seal in that compartment broke down," the admiral said, perhaps because "some submariners tried to leave the sub from more than 100 meters depth, which is not envisioned."

Only deep sea divers, he said, can verify whether the hatch seal has been broken. If it was, he said, then that would explain why navy rescue vehicles that have managed to dock on the hatch have not been able to evacuate water from the airtight corridor that must be established for rescue to occur.

Saturday night, a navy spokesman said that a Russian rescue submarine made a third dive to the Kursk in an attempt to lock onto the hatch and open it.

Motsak said there was extensive flooding that may have reached all of the submarine's nine compartments. That would mean that any sailors who survived the initial explosion had to endure conditions including icy water that further compressed any breathable air in the submarine to what he called lethal "high-pressure pockets."

Naval experts in the United States and Russia said a buildup of air pressure inside any flooded compartments could have killed members of the crew within a few days of the sinking. Any accident in which you rupture high pressure piping is considered the most dangerous, said Adm. Eduard Baltin, former commander of the Soviet submarine fleet in the Pacific.

The explosion probably ruptured high-pressure pipes in the compartments, thus increasing air pressure, Baltin said. In addition, the Russian and American experts said, intruding sea water, itself under high pressure at a depth of 350 feet, compresses the air in the closed spaces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made no public appearance on Saturday. Kremlin spokesmen reported only that he met with advisers and discussed the status of the rescue operation. Apparently there were no plans for Putin to travel to the Murmansk area.

Motsak said the rescue operation would now concentrate on penetrating the hull of the 490-foot submarine to begin evacuation of bodies. He said the navy would eventually raise the submarine to remove its weapons and nuclear reactors, but that "it may take time."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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