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Russia Says All Aboard Submarine Likely Dead

Military: Most of the vessel was flooded after it sank, the navy reveals, ending hope of a rescue. Norwegian and British teams arrive to assist.

August 20, 2000|ROBYN DIXON and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MURMANSK, Russia — A senior Russian navy officer told his despairing nation Saturday that all 118 men trapped for a week in a nuclear submarine were probably dead because Arctic seawater had flooded compartments in the rear of the stricken vessel as well as the front.

The somber announcement all but confirmed Russia's worst peacetime naval disaster and appeared to shatter any hope that British and Norwegian teams who joined Russian rescue efforts today will succeed.

After a week of conflicting, vaguely negative assessments of the crew's fate, Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak's blunt 12-minute statement was clearly meant to prepare the country for the worst. Russian television repeated it all evening and for the first time scrolled the names of the trapped men--86 officers, 31 enlisted sailors and a civilian--across the screen.

Grim-faced and clutching his hands together atop his desk at Russia's Northern Fleet headquarters, where he is chief of staff, Motsak said water poured through much of the 13,900-ton Kursk on Aug. 12 after two explosions left it mangled 350 feet under the Barents Sea. Previous official statements had confirmed flooding only in the foremost two of the sub's 10 compartments and held out hope for at least some of the crew.

Crew members in the 500-foot vessel's forward compartments apparently died within minutes, he said, and, as water reached rear compartments, rising air pressure "immediately resulted in a worsening of life functions of the crew, reducing the time limits for staying alive."

"We have already crossed the critical boundary of ensuring the life of the crew," the officer added.

The announcement capped a week of roller-coaster emotions in which one admiral declared that surviving crewmen had enough oxygen for three days, then upped the estimate to nine days. Officials reported tapping by crewmen on the hull of the sub Tuesday, then admitted that the signals had ceased Monday.

Thousands of people gathered in Moscow's Russian Orthodox cathedral Saturday to join the Orthodox patriarch, Alexi II, in praying for the men and their relatives.

"Hope dies last," he intoned.

The navy's announcement, a few hours later, stunned crewmen's relatives as they converged on this Arctic port city. They were being closeted at a navy base in nearby Vidyayevo to await further efforts by rescuers, who have been trying fruitlessly to enter the sub through its rear escape hatch.

Those efforts will proceed, officials said, but with hopes more of learning exactly went wrong with one of the country's newest submarines than of finding anyone alive.

"The essential thing is to find them--alive or dead--and get them to shore to do what must be done," Motsak said.

The navy's commercial department received an order to acquire 150 plastic body bags, 80 coffins and 500 yards of red cloth to line them, according to Vladimir M. Mamontov, Murmansk editor of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. He said officials told him that the order would bring to 118 the number of coffins the navy has on hand.

A British mini-sub, the LR5, arrived in the Barents Sea aboard a Norwegian oil freighter late Saturday to join 22 Russian vessels in the rescue effort.

A team of Norwegian deep-sea divers arrived a few hours later and early this morning descended into the Arctic waters to survey the submarine and its damaged escape hatches. That information was necessary before the British submarine could attempt its own dive and try to lock onto the hatches.

Russian mini-subs came tantalizingly close Friday, managing for the first time to lock onto the rear hatch's outer door. The edges of the hatch were so bent, however, that rescuers were unable to pump out enough water to open the inner door. Russian officials say the sub's other escape hatch, near the midsection, is destroyed.

The British mini-sub, on its maiden mission, is believed to have a better chance of connecting with the Kursk because of its more flexible docking mechanism.

"But if the hatch is so badly damaged that the LR5 cannot establish a watertight seal, then we will have to abort the mission," Paul Barnard, a British Defense Ministry spokesman, said in London. "There is no Plan B."

British officials also emphasized that they would not send the submersible down if undersea conditions were deemed too risky for its three-member crew.

The arrival of the foreign divers and mini-sub a full week after the accident only inflamed popular outrage over the government's initial insistence that Russia could manage the rescue operation alone. Criticism of the effort confronted President Vladimir V. Putin with his first serious crisis since he took office earlier this year. He reversed his position Wednesday.

"It was a mistake that the navy refused for so long to accept the foreign help that was so persistently offered to us," said Lidya Kabardina, a spokeswoman for the Murmansk Soldiers' Mothers Committee. "It was clear from the very start that it should have been an all-hands-on-deck job."

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