MOSCOW — They were alive. At least some of them. At least for a while.
One of the first bodies recovered from the sunken Russian submarine Kursk on Thursday had a note tucked in the pocket, navy officials said. And with its scribbled, businesslike lines, it reawakened all the pain and shame of last summer's nuclear submarine disaster.
"There are 23 people here," wrote Lt. Capt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, the 27-year-old commander of the turbine section, who had fled with his men from other compartments to the stern section of the crippled submarine. "We made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get to the surface."
The note appeared to shed no light on the cause of the Aug. 12 sinking but confirmed the worst fears of some of the families of the victims: that their loved ones were alive for some time, perhaps just a few hours, after the accident and probably died a slow, painful death while waiting for help that never arrived.
And it also again raised the possibility that maybe, just maybe, if the rescue effort had been speedier or more efficient, some sailors might have been saved.
"It's painful; enormously painful. I had this feeling that my husband didn't die immediately. Now that it has been confirmed, it hurts a lot," Kolesnikov's widow, Olga, stammered through tears in a televised news conference. "I want to see him one more time. I want to read his letter."
She was not the only one affected by the news. Divers who retrieved the bodies were reported to be undergoing counseling. Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, grew emotional during a dockside news briefing and warned reporters to show respect.
"Don't pry clumsily into our souls," he said. "We're in pain." Then he saluted curtly and marched off.
Perhaps none of the misfortunes this nation has suffered in recent years has caused as great a public outpouring of grief as the loss of the Kursk and its 118 seamen. Russians watched with anger as the navy tried and failed for days after the accident to reach the crippled submarine, hoping and fearing that the sailors were still alive.
When Norwegian divers finally opened the submarine's escape hatch Aug. 21 and discovered the craft filled with water, Russian officials tried to calm an aggrieved nation and defend their rescue efforts by suggesting that the entire crew had perished immediately at the time of the sinking.
Kolesnikov's few lines removed whatever poor comfort that offered.
His 22-year-old brother Alexander, also a submariner, said Thursday: "I can't really explain how I feel on hearing this news, but I am sure I wouldn't wish you or anybody to be in my place now and feel the way I feel."
Lt. Capt. Kolesnikov's note was written on both sides of the paper: One side was a private message to his wife, the other technical information.
Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov detailed the note's contents to family members, asking them not to cry "or I will start crying with you."
According to naval practice, he said, Kolesnikov began the note with the time: 1:15 p.m., nearly two hours after a still-unexplained blast in the bow caused the 500-foot-long submarine to sink.
It was written in a steady hand, in even lines, suggesting that the emergency lighting was still working.
The later handwriting is more difficult to read, Kuroyedov said. Kolesnikov acknowledged as much in the note. Some of his last words were: "I'm writing blindly." The light, and his strength, probably were failing.
Motsak, the Northern Fleet's chief of staff, provided additional details during his briefing for reporters, although they conflicted somewhat with Kuroyedov's account. Motsak said the note indicated that the surviving crew members had fled to the ninth compartment, the submarine's far-aft section, at 12:58 p.m. from the sixth, seventh and eighth compartments. Kolesnikov started writing the note at 1:34 p.m., Motsak said, and stopped writing at 3:15 p.m.
The note indicated that two or three of the crew members were going to attempt a free ascent--exiting the submarine through an escape hatch despite the water pressure. Motsak noted that rescuers had found the hatch flooded, suggesting that the attempt was unsuccessful.
It was not clear what other information the note may contain about the cause and results of the blast, which is believed to have killed much of the crew instantly.
But it provides grounds for a number of conjectures. The 23 sailors would have been crowded into a space that normally holds only three people. Levels of carbon dioxide would be increasing as they breathed.