Hope lost at the undersea tomb

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The Independent Online

All across Russia last night they were waiting for their dead. The lovers, friends and families, whose hope turned to angry despair as the submarine Kursk lay wounded underwater for a week with 118 men inside, knew their moment of truth was imminent.

All across Russia last night they were waiting for their dead. The lovers, friends and families, whose hope turned to angry despair as the submarine Kursk lay wounded underwater for a week with 118 men inside, knew their moment of truth was imminent.

As the rescue teams from Britain and Norway finally sailed on to the scene in the Arctic at 5pm British time, few people dared believe there could be any survivors. But even when the high-tech equipment had been put in place there was a delay of several hours as Russian authorities went over the fine detail of what was possible.

Commander Alan Hoskins, leading the British rescue attempt, said there was a sense of "nervous anticipation" among his team. "The mood is subdued because we are so close. There is a quiet air of determination." He said weather conditions were almost perfect for an attempt and he was confident the LR5 could "mate" with the Kursk and they could open the aft hatch, if it was not too badly damaged.

Just before the foreign help arrived, a Russian naval commander interrupted television programmes to announce it was almost certainly too late to save a soul. The last, faint sounds of tapping from 350ft down in the raging Barents Sea had been reported on Tuesday.

"Hard as it is to say this, our worst expectations have come true," admitted Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak, chief of the general staff of the Northern Fleet. "It is the gravest disaster that I, as a sailor, have known in the history of the submarine fleet." Like the rest of the Russian officials and naval top brass whose alternating silence, conflicting statements and reluctance to call in outsiders has infuriated the crew's families, he could only wait to see what the divers found.

But loving hope dies hard. Those who had grown used to sending their boys away to sail beneath the waves for months on end in a claustrophobic vessel packed with nuclear power refused to give up until they were presented with the bodies, to mourn over.

"The British are our only hope now," said a pensioner on the sullen streets of Kursk, the industrial city south of Moscow that gave the powerful submarine its name. "Our poor boys," cried a stall-holder. "We have been waiting and waiting ... I could strangle our government over this."

Seven sailors from Kursk were among the crew, working for a pittance under water. In the ramshackle Russian navy, even the captain of such a prestigious vessel, was paid just £120 a month.

"The crew has unfortunately perished, that is a fact," said Yuri Yevdokimov, governor of Murmansk, the northern Russian base from which the submarine had sailed. "This is painful not only for the relatives, but for all the people in the north and for Russia."

Last night, President Vladimir Putin was reported to have arrived in Murmansk.

In Severomorsk, the submarine's home port, there was anger at the announcement that the men were probably dead. "We thought this for a week," said Andrei Knovlov, a sailor. "Announcing it today means they have known about it for days. They are treating us like idiots again."

Admiral Motsak revealed on television that the bow section of the submarine - where most of the sailors would have been working - had flooded in the first seconds of the accident. Those close by would have died in minutes.

The Kursk is divided into 10 supposedly water-tight sections, but Admiral Motsak said the water gradually filled the stern of the boat. "As water slowly filled, the compartments in the stern the pressure inside built up, inevitably reducing the life expectancy of the crew," he said. Tapping by the trapped men revealed that "the crew in the compartments in the stern were telling us the water was filtering into their sections and they wanted us to provide air supply", he added.

Admiral Motsak said it was still essential to retrieve any crew members who were still alive - but the rescue effort might switch to a salvage operation if there were only corpses on board.

Yesterday, a Russian commission set up to investigate what happened to the Kursk said there was a huge internal explosion on 12 August.

"When the submarine hit the seabed at high speed its torpedoes apparently exploded," said Admiral Motsak. The Kursk would normally have been carrying an unknown number of torpedoes as well as cruise missiles. It is still unclear what sent the submarine plunging into the seabed.

The tapping proved some crew remained alive for at least 48 hours. The bitter criticism that President Putin has faced for not accepting foreign aid until four days after the disaster may diminish if diving crews find proof that the last survivors died on Monday.

In London a Ministry of Defence spokesman said an unmanned photographic probe would be sent down to assess the situation, then the Norwegian divers would investigate. The first attempt to reach the submarine was expected to take place just after 6am local time (2am GMT).