British divers say bad weather may have misled Russians to conclude escape hatch was damaged

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The Independent Online

The normal movement of exterior rubber panels on the escape hatch of the sunken submarine Kursk may have misled Russian rescuers to conclude the hatch was damaged, two British divers said today.

The normal movement of exterior rubber panels on the escape hatch of the sunken submarine Kursk may have misled Russian rescuers to conclude the hatch was damaged, two British divers said today.

The divers were part of the Anglo-Norwegian team who sailed to the Arctic Ocean in the hope of finding survivors, but who instead had the grim task of confirming that no-one had lived.

Since their dives they have been isolated in a decompression chamber, recovering from the depths they worked in. Today they emerged - to announce they were setting up an appeal fund for the relatives of the striken submarine's crew.

The first diver to reach the Kursk, Tony Scott, said the appearance of the escape had been misleading: "There was evidence of what looked liked cracking, but it turned out to be signs of regular movement of the rubber panels ... and that could be construed as damage."

"When the Russians were performing their operations in the beginning, I think the conditions were a lot different and there was less visibility," he explained in a telephone interview from Tromsoe, Norway.

The nuclear-powered submarine, one of Russia's newest, was shattered by an explosion and sank on Aug. 12 while taking part in naval exercises in the Barents Sea off Russia's northern coast and about 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Norwegian territory.

For days attempting the rescue on their own, the Russians complained of strong currents and poor visibility, and said the escape hatch was damaged. But a British-Norwegian team of divers found conditions relatively calm and the hatch intact.

The Norwegian-British team arrived a week after the accident and confirmed in little more than a day that the submarine was flooded and all aboard were dead.

Scott, 44, said access to the Kursk's sister submarine for planning purposes was important. "They've got to be given credit for the fact that they gave us every cooperation that we could require," he said.

Col. John Espen Lien, spokesman for the Norwegian Supreme Defense Command, has said early information from the Russians was so inaccurate or vague that the Norwegians were not sure conditions were safe enough for the diving team to continue.

Scott and colleague Arthur Alistair Clark offered no insight into what caused the Kursk to sink. "I don't think anybody will know (what happened) until the submarine is brought up," Scott said.

Clark said it was clear that all the Russian submariners were dead by the time the divers arrived and hammered on the hull. "If there was any response, we would have heard it," he said.

The divers now are trying to raise money for relatives of the crew members who perished. Their diving company, the Norwegian concern Stolt Offshore, has set up a fund to collect donations that will go directly to the families.

Donations to the divers' fund can be sent to Stolt Offshore M.S. Limited (Seaway Eagle Kursk Fund), C/O Fiona Harris, Stolt Offshore M.S. Limited, Bucksburn House, Howes Road, Aberdeen, AB167QU

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