A note scribbled in the dark that proves 23 of these men survived the explosion on the 'Kursk'

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A chilling new chapter in the story of the Kursk, the doomed Russian submarine, unfolded yesterday when divers discovered a note, written by a dying seaman, that revealed at least 23 sailors survived the explosion that sent it plunging to the bottom of the Barents Sea.

A chilling new chapter in the story of the Kursk, the doomed Russian submarine, unfolded yesterday when divers discovered a note, written by a dying seaman, that revealed at least 23 sailors survived the explosion that sent it plunging to the bottom of the Barents Sea.

The message written by Lieutenant Dmitry Kolesnikov, a 27-year-old officer in charge of the submarine's turbine room, was found in his pocket after members of the joint Russian-Norwegian salvage team brought his body to the surface.

He wrote the note as he sat in the still intact eighth compartment of the submarine, two hours after the blast ripped apart its bow section on 12 August. "I am writing this blind," the note said, implying that all lights had failed on the Kursk and he was writing in the dark. The survivors, he wrote, were trying to move into the supposedly watertight compartments in the rear of the submarine.

"All the crew from the sixth, seventh and eighth compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get to the surface," the note was quoted as saying by Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the chief of the Russian navy.

You can only imagine the terror felt by Lt Kolesnikov and his crewmates as the water poured in to the bitterly cold and pitch-dark cabin. As seasoned submariners, they would have been aware of the dangers they faced at sea, and would surely have had no illusions about their survival prospects in the aftermath of the explosion.

The poignant message, not all of which has been revealed by the naval authorities, is in the form of a good-bye letter from Lt Kolesnikov, the son of a submariner from St Petersburg, to his family. According to ViceAdmiral Mikhail Motsak, the chief of staff of Russia's northern fleet, the note also says that "two or three people might try to escape the submarine through the emergency escape hatch located in the ninth compartment". In fact, nobody would escape from the Kursk, which lay 354ft below the surface of the Barents Sea. Admiral Motsak said the sailors' plans might have been thwarted by water pouring into the ninth compartment of the Kursk, which became their tomb.

Lt Kolesnikov's note represents the first hard information about what happened inside the Kursk after it went down. The revelation that 23 out of the 118 sailors on board the vessel were alive after it sank will reopen a painful debate in Russia about whether a better organised rescue effort, or an appeal from Moscow for international assistance, might have saved some of the stricken crewmen.

The published roster of the Kursk's crew shows that 24 sailors would normally have worked in sections six to nine of the submarine. When the submarine sank on 12 August, the Russian navy at first said it had the situation under control and some of the crew who had survived were tapping messages on the side of the vessel to indicate that they were alive. Only much later, after Russian mini-submarines had failed to open an escape hatch, was a Norwegian rescue team called in. Its divers succeeded in prising open the hatch into the Kursk in 24 hours.

Vice-Admiral Einar Skorgen, the Norwegian in charge of the rescue mission, said later in an interview that he had almost called off the operation because of lying by the Russian authorities. "They unleashed so much spurious and distorted information on us that it threatened the safety of our divers," he said.

It is not known how long the 23 crewmen lived after Lt Kolesnikov wrote his last message. It has the numbers "13.15", presumably referring to the time written on it, but no date. Given that American, Norwegian and Russian vessels in the area on 12 August heard the first blast at 11.28 am local time this suggests that Lt Kolesnikov was alive almost two hours after the accident.

He may not have lived long afterwards. Russian ORT television news last night said Admiral Kuroyedov had told relatives of the dead sailors that the young officer's message was written on two sides of a sheet of paper.

On one side he wrote in clear handwriting of the sailors' attempt to escape. On the other, in an unclear script, as if he was already weakening, is a personal message to his wife Olga, a school teacher, whom he married earlier this year, and the rest of his family.

"The note is of a very private nature and will be passed on to his relatives, but it also gave us a lot of operational information," said Admiral Motsak.

Olga, interviewed on Russian television with tears streaming down her face, said she wanted to see her husband's body. "I'm preparing for a meeting with him," she said. "I want to see him again. I want to read his letter."

The weather was too stormy in the Barents Sea yesterday for divers to enter the submarine again and it is likely to get worse over the next few days. But if the weather does improve, the divers will try to enter the ninth compartment of the submarine where Lt Kolesnikov says the crewmen took refuge. Admiral Motsak said at a briefing that the divers will try to open an internal hatch from the eighth compartment. If this fails they may have to cut a new hole in the double hull of the submarine from the outside.

President Vladimir Putin pledged yesterday that the operation would go ahead whatever happened. "The work on the Kursk will be continued," he told the Russian Security Council. "We will keep our promises to the families of the dead soldiers and do our best so that the state can give its final honours to the hero-soldiers."

Mr Putin was heavily criticised in the Russian and foreign media in August for not returning from holiday in Sochi on the Black Sea when the Kursk went down. But opinion polls show that the accident did not hit his popularity, because most Russians accept that there was little he could have done.

The Russian government is still saying the submarine sank either because of an internal explosion, a collision with a foreign vessel or through striking a Second World War mine. The Russian army newspaper, Kranaya Zvezda, says the Kursk was using a new torpedo engine introduced because it was cheaper. It said submariners disliked the weapon because its fuel was volatile and it was dangerous to store.

If a torpedo engine did blow up this would explain why surface vessels heard two explosions, the first quite small and, 136 seconds later, a second massive blast which was probably the submarine's other torpedo warheads exploding. The Kursk then sank to the seabed so quickly that its auxiliary engines were not used and no emergency buoy released, which would have enabled rescue vessels to find the site of the wreck. By the time the Russian surface fleet had located the Kursk 12 hours later, Lt Kolesnikov and his crewmates were almost certainly dead.