SCMP Friday, August 18, 2000

RUSSIA

British rescue team races to save crew

AGENCIES in London and Trondheim, Norway


A British rescue team equipped with a unique mini-sub steamed north from the Norwegian port of Trondheim yesterday in what may be the last hope for Russian sailors trapped beneath Arctic seas aboard the Kursk submarine.

The mini-sub, the LR5 rescue vehicle, is not expected to arrive at the site of the accident in the Barents Sea until tomorrow. It has never before been used in a real emergency.

The LR5 can attach a "mating wedge" to the escape hatch of a submarine listing at an angle of 60 degrees. The Kursk is bow-down and listing at an angle of no more than 20 degrees, 100 metres below the surface.

Another Norwegian vessel, the Seaway Eagle, carrying a dozen crack deep-sea divers, was pulled off duty in a North Sea oil field and dispatched to assist in the rescue operation. It is now expected to arrive at the site of the disaster only late on Sunday night, not today. "[Such] a delay would not be a good thing in a situation like this," Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik said.

British Royal Navy Commander David Stanesby acknowledged there were questions on whether any of the crew of the Russian submarine were still alive, but said the British-Norwegian rescue effort would continue at full speed. "Nobody will really know until we get down there," he said.

The British LR5 has a crew of three, and acts as an underwater lifeboat for up to 15 people at a time. A "transfer skirt" fixed to the escape hatch of the submarine equalises pressure by pumping out water, creating an airlock. The hatches of the submarine and the LR5 are then opened to enable the sailors to be transferred - providing they still have the strength to do so.

The LR5 would then be steered to the surface, unload the sailors and return to collect others from the stricken submarine.

The 34-strong rescue party includes navy divers, doctors, and interpreters. As well as the LR5, they will use a remote-operated reconnaissance vehicle.

Britain's Ministry of Defence cautioned that any rescue will be slow and painstaking even if it goes without a hitch. The whole operation could take up to two days because of the difficult conditions and the limitations of the submersible, a spokesman said.

Each of the LR5's trips to the surface can take between three and four hours. The vessel's batteries last for a maximum of 10 hours, allowing it to make only two or three round trips to the Kursk before it has to return to its mother vessel for a recharge.

That could mean the submersible will be out of action for as long as eight hours, though its crew will try to keep the batteries topped up by recharging them briefly every time it surfaces. There is a spare battery but it would take hours to replace it, the spokesman said.

The mini-submarine, operated by two pilots and a crew member in the rescue chamber, would be carrying oxygen, food and electricity on its first trip down, Royal Navy Commander Alan Hoskins said. It will also carry three Russian navy personnel on its first trip, who, if necessary, will venture into the submarine to look for signs of life.

The LR5 has been used in five exercises but had never before been used "in anger", Roger Chapman, of Rumic, the vessel's operating company, said yesterday. He added that the Russians had asked for help "a bit late".

Russian navy officials warned that when the help does arrive, air-starved sailors might be too weak to open the emergency hatch through which they could scramble to safety. A spokesman with the Northern Fleet said: "Until [today], people should be able to move around the boat fairly freely. After then, their health will start to grow worse. The 26th is the last date until which they can survive."

Many experts believe that estimate is far too optimistic.