After 8 days, divers start to solve the riddle of the sunken 'Kursk'

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The Independent Online

The sunken nuclear submarine Kursk began to reveal its secrets to the world yesterday as the rescue attempt finally swung into gear.

The sunken nuclear submarine Kursk began to reveal its secrets to the world yesterday as the rescue attempt finally swung into gear.

Norwegian divers were preparing last night to enter the Kursk, whose fate has become a symbol of Russia's decline as a great power. Russians are now beginning to accept that all 118 on board are dead, killed in the explosions which ripped through the bows of the submarine or asphyxiated as they ran out of air.

President Vladimir Putin, earlier accused of inaction, said: "With sorrow in our hearts and, I do not exaggerate, tears in our eyes, we are following all that is happening in the Barents Sea. The sailors are doing everything to save their comrades."

The rescue team may use a crane on the surface to rip a buckled escape hatch off the stern of the submarine, allowing volunteer divers to crawl in through a narrow escape tube.

During a day of contradictions as the rescue inched ahead, Russian television reported that the body of a Russian sailor who tried to get out of the submarine may be blocking the boat's rear escape hatch which they repeatedly tried to open yesterday.

It said the sailor, in an attempt to escape, may have crawled into an exit tube, allowed it to fill with freezing sea water, but was then unable to lift the outer hatch.

Even if he had swum out of the Kursk he would certainly have died because of the high pressure 350ft below the surface of the Barents Sea.

The divers opened the outer cover of the escape hatch but were unable to penetrate further into the submarine. Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of Russia's Northern Fleet, said earlier that some sailors, trying to escape inrushing water, might have "tried to leave the sub from 100 metres (350ft)." He added that nobody could survive at this depth.

In a sign that there may be disagreements within the Norwegian-Russian rescue team, Norwegian officials later said they were unconvinced that the hatch into the Kursk could not be opened. It was still possible it could be opened by either a Russian or a British mini-submarine and it might not be necessary to use a crane, they said.

"We have not drawn theconclusion that the hatch is so damaged that it cannot be opened," said John Espen Lien, spokesman for the Norwegian armed forces. Lt-Col Lien angrily denied that the space under the escape hatch was filled with water.

For the first time yesterday Russians - and television viewers around the world - got a close-up view of the remains of the Kursk. A deep crack on the rear escape hatch shows that the explosion - probably of a torpedo - which smashed through the first five or six compartments of the submarine was also strong enough to buckle the hull close to the propellors.

"This inspection showed a serious crack," said the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Klebanov. "That is why we think that the British submarine will not be able to dock and our main hope is on the manual work, together with a [diving] bell of the Norwegian divers."

The damage to the rear escape hatch, the only escape route to survive the initial blast, makes it less likely that the British mini-submarine LR5 will be used immediately. The original aim was for the three-man crew of the LR5 to establish a link through the hatch allowing any survivors to escape.

The day began yesterday with a remote-controlled camera being lowered to the wreck of the Kursk. This was followed an hour later by three Norwegian divers - part of a team of 12 who can work round the clock in relays - who tapped painstakingly for hours along the sides of the submarine and found some air pockets.

Later they battered with hammers at the bolts holding the escape hatch in place but had to send for heavier tools.

In the murk at the bottom of the Barents Sea, where the Kursk is slowly sinking into the mud, the divers can only move slowly in their bulky diving suits.

Most of the crew probably died in the first moments of the disaster when the Kursk, taking part in large-scale naval manoeuvres, suddenly disappeared.

By the Russian account, the submarine either suffered an internal explosion then plunged into the ocean bottom where a second explosion ripped through its bows. The most likely cause is the explosion of torpedo warhead. Any crew in the first five or six compartments of the submarine, including the control room, would have died instantly as seawater poured in. Others, in the rear of the vessel, appear to have lived at least another 48 hours. Admiral Motsak said that tapping had been heard from the boat last Monday.

He said: "The crew in the stern were telling us that the water was filtering into their sections and they wanted us to provide air supply." The navy could not do this because the Kursk did not have any equipment to which an air supply hose could be attached.

Given the progress made by the Norwegian divers, experienced in repairing North Sea oil rigs in deep waters, in the first hours of their rescue bid, Russian critics are asking why they were not called in earlier.

The Russian navy did have deep-sea divers but they were discharged because of lack of funds. When they offered to help they were rebuffed. Asked why Russian or foreign divers had not been used earlier Vice-Admiral Nikolai Konorev said: "It's a painful question to answer. We had deep confidence we would be able to do the work with rescue capsules."

Yuri Filchenkov, a former navy diver with 15 years' experience, said that his offer to help was turned down. "In stormy seas you can't get a rescue craft connected with a hatch without a diver helping." He said that attempts to do so were only driving the crews of the mini-submarines to their graves.

Other former naval officers said the mini-submarines had never carried out an underwater docking before and there were no specialised rescue ships in the Northern Fleet.