Russia puts its faith in a break in the weather and the 'Kolokol'

Putin rejects offers of international help as storms hamper efforts to get air and power lines to stricken vessel
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The Independent Online

In the end, should they somehow overcome the odds stacked against them, any survivors from the Kursk will most likely be mouthing their words of thanks to the Kolokol.

In the end, should they somehow overcome the odds stacked against them, any survivors from the Kursk will most likely be mouthing their words of thanks to the Kolokol.

The small diving vessel, fitted with an airlock but capable of carrying no more than 15 to 20 people at any time, is named after the Russian word for "bell".

Last night, with rescuers seizing on a break in the atrocious weather conditions in the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea, and with the Russian navy's only submersible rescue vessels stuck on a research vessel moored at least two days away in the Baltic, the quaintly named diving bell looked like the trapped men's only chance of survival. And, at best, it was still only a slim chance.

"The projection of possible consequences of the accident in the Kursk for the lives of its crew remains extremely grave," the Russian naval commander, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, said yesterday.

But away from the calmly worded official statement released yesterday morning, the Russian authorities were frantically trying to save both the 116 officers and crew trapped on the listing vessel, and the nation's reputation as a serious naval power - one capable of dealing with its own emergencies.

Initial efforts yesterday morning to attach air and power lines to the nuclear submarine, stranded on the sea-bed at more than 150m (500ft), had failed as rescuers were foiled by the weather. Likewise, attempts to reinstate communication - other than by listening to the sound of the crew tapping, which allegedly signified that the crew were all alive - were equally unsuccessful. And on the surface, all but two of a fleet of rescue vessels had their anchors ripped up by the storms.

All the while, the rescuers have little or no idea of the situation within the submarine. They know well enough that conditions - particularly for the conscripted sailors - are cramped: vessels such as this Oscar II-class submarine are built for fighting, not for comfort.

They know, too, that, by now, with the survivors of the explosion - rather than a collision, as the Russians reported yesterday - squeezed together in one part of the vessel, the available air will be old and stale. Without power to operate the air filters, levels of exhaled carbon dioxide will be soaring. "Of course, the oxygen is running low, people just need to lie or sit down," said a spokesman at the Severomorsk naval base, where the Kursk was built.

They must also have some idea of the psychological effect on those trapped. Gerd Kelbling, a German U-boat commander during the second World War, was trapped at 240m beneath the Mediterranean after coming under attack from two Allied destroyers in December 1943.

"When the people are on the bottom and can't do anything, it's a terrifying situation psychologically," Mr Kelbling, now 85, said yesterday. "It's different when you can do something. That makes it easier to deal with such a situation.

"You think all the time that this is the end, when you're down in the water. The situation in Russia is a very critical matter. It is very questionable if they can get out of this."

Despite all of this, the Russian authorities were yesterday adamant that this was a situation over which they wanted to succeed or fail on their own. A number of Nato countries, including the United States and Britain, have made offers of help - such as an option to use Deep Submersible Rescue Vehicles (DSRV) - but all have been declined.

On Monday, Norway's Rear-Admiral Einar Skorgen, used a special hotline to contact Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, head of Russia's Northern Fleet, to offer support.

"He offered Norwegian help and said his country was offering to co-ordinate help from other Western states to support a rescue operation," said a Norwegian armed forces spokesman. "[Admiral Popov] replied that they thanked us for the offer but did not have a need for outside help."

Instead, the Russians have turned to the designers of the submarine, P P Pustyntsev and Igor Bazanov, for ideas on what to do.

Yesterday, Mr Bazanov said that he would take responsibility for the accident. "Something extraordinary, beyond the imagination of an engineer [had happened]," he added.

The decision by the Russian authorities to go it alone has not eased the concerns of environmentalists worried about the possible leak of radiation from the submarine's two nuclear reactors, which were turned off on Sunday.

Russian officials have insisted that the Kursk was not carrying nuclear weapons, although it is equipped to carry up to 24.

Per Strand, head of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, which called for a meeting of experts, said that monitoring had not so far detected any escaping radiation. "We are continuing a fairly intensive programme of tests of air and sea," he said. "All the tests so far show no traces of radioactivity from the submarine. We have no reason to doubt the Russian assurances [that there have been no leaks], but we want to be sure because of the closeness to Norway and doubts about what caused the accident."

At the moment, identifying the precise cause of the accident is less of an imperative than saving the crew. Admiral Kuroyedov said: "This is the most important task. We will deal with the vessel later. Our lack of knowledge about the fate of the crew has marked all of our work."

It seems that initial claims that the Kursk had been involved in a collision are not correct. Admiral Kuroyedov said he believed that there had been an explosion in the torpedo compartment at the nose of the submarine.

The United States said two of its submarines had been in the area and one reported hearing an explosion at the site on Saturday.

But since the Kursk was involved in a training operation involving the firing of ordnance, it is not certain the Americans heard anything relevant to the cause of the accident.

This will come later. Last night, with the rescue operation underway, thoughts were focused on just one thing - saving lives.