SCMP Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Time running out for sub crew


Rescuers in an underwater escape capsule inched through swirling sand and strong currents on Wednesday, fighting to reach a crippled Russian nuclear submarine on the sea bottom with 116 sailors trapped inside.

Attempts to latch on to one of the submarine's cargo hatches were being frustrated because the current was rocking the rescue capsule, making it difficult to steer, said navy Captain Igor Babenko. Conditions on the sea floor were very bad with rescuers able to see just a few centimetres through the muddy water even though they had searchlights, he said.

''Sand and silt envelop the capsule causing zero visibility,'' said a navy officer, who declined to be named.

A rescue capsule was almost lost during the operation because of the strong currents and bad weather, said navy spokesman Igor Dygalo, who gave no details. The rescue work was very dangerous, he said.

The navy was determined to continue the rescue effort, but the weather in the Barents Sea was deteriorating on Wednesday afternoon with high winds and waves buffeting rescue ships, Captain Babenko said. About 20 ships were taking part in the operation.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said on Wednesday there was no sign of life aboard the submarine, but that this did not mean that there were no survivors.

President Vladimir Putin said the situation was critical, and everything was being done to try to reach the Kursk.

Navy officials said on Wednesday that the Kursk went missing on Saturday, despite official statements it was lost on Sunday. The alarm was sounded after the Kursk failed to make a scheduled radio contact on Saturday and it was found on Sunday, said the officials, who asked not to be named.

A US Navy submarine monitoring Russian naval exercises in the area heard an explosion on Saturday that appeared linked to the Kursk, US officials said in Washington on Tuesday.

The latest rescue attempt involved a larger, more powerful capsule called the Bester, and it was hoped it would be able to better handle the swift currents on the sea floor, officials said.

A smaller rescue capsule that tried four times during the night to reach the submarine was forced back to the surface after running out of oxygen, navy officials said. Its batteries were being recharged and the two capsules would work in turns, they said.

''We always hope for success,'' said Mr Dygalo. ''But as our work over night showed, we discovered several negative factors.''

The navy has had no communication with the submarine since it sunk during the weekend and officials said they had no idea about conditions inside the Kursk. But the navy insisted that at least some of the crew was still alive.

The head of the navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, said on Wednesday he was more confident about the chances of success and said rescue operations would continued until at least Friday.

''Now I am feeling more confidence that the operation to rescue the Kursk's crew will yield a result,'' he told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

But Admiral Kuroyedov said nothing had been heard from inside the Kursk despite earlier reports of sounds.

''It is necessary to take account of the psychology of submariners - when they know that rescue capsules are hovering above them, they keep silent,'' he was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass.

Admiral Kuroyedov said earlier that the situation was ''extremely grave,'' with the crew expected to run out of oxygen Friday. Navy officials said water appeared to be leaking into the submarine.

The submarine suffered extensive damage after an explosion in the torpedo compartment at the front of the vessel, but the cause was not clear, the navy said. The submarine's conning tower was damaged and protective covers of two missile tubes on the vessel's right side were missing, it said.

Even if the capsules successfully dock with the sub and sailors can enter it and find survivors, the craft can hold only 20 people at a time and officials say bringing it to the surface could take up to seven hours, a slow rise required to prevent the potentially crippling or fatal decompression sickness.

Rescuers could also try to raise the submarine using giant pontoons, Admiral Kuroyedov said - a seemingly impossible prospect because the flooded craft weighs some 20,000 tons. Another proposal called for raising the submarine to a vertical position so part of it protruded from the water.

Russia refused offers from the United States and Britain to send trained rescue personnel and equipment even though the Russian navy lacks sophisticated rescue gear. Navy spokesman Admiral Dygalo said co-ordinating the rescue with other countries would take too much time and ''we cannot afford to waste it''.

Officials said the Kursk's two nuclear reactors had been switched off and it was not carrying nuclear weapons.

Russian nuclear submarines have been involved in a string of accidents in recent decades. The Navy, like the rest of the Russian military, is desperately short of money and performs almost no maintenance on its ships.