Time ebbs away for trapped submariners

Click to follow

Rescuers in an underwater escape capsule inched through swirling sand and strong currents this morning, fighting to reach a crippled Russian nuclear submarine on the sea bottom with 116 sailors trapped inside.

Rescuers in an underwater escape capsule inched through swirling sand and strong currents this morning, fighting to reach a crippled Russian nuclear submarine on the sea bottom with 116 sailors trapped inside.

Attempts to latch on to one of the submarine's cargo hatches were being frustrated because the current was rocking the rescue capsule, making it difficult to steer, said navy Capt. Igor Babenko.

Conditions on the sea floor were very bad with rescuers able to see just a few inches through the muddy water even though they had searchlights, he said.

The navy was determined to continue the rescue effort, but the weather in the Barents Sea is deteriorating with high winds and waves buffeting rescue ships. About 20 ships were taking part in the operation.

President Vladimir Putin said the situation was critical, but everything was being done to try to reach the Kursk.

The alarm was sounded after the Kursk failed to make a scheduled radio contact on Saturday. It's whereabouts became clear when a U.S. Navy submarine monitoring Russian naval exercises in the area heard an explosion that appeared linked to the Kursk.

The latest rescue attempt involved a larger, more powerful capsule called the Bester, and it was hoped it would be able to better handle the swift currents on the sea floor, officials said. A smaller rescue capsule that tried four times during the night to reach the submarine was forced back to the surface after running out of oxygen, navy officials said. Its batteries were being recharged and the two capsules would work in turns.

The navy has had no communication with the submarine since it sunk during the weekend and officials said they had no idea about conditions inside the Kursk.

The head of the navy, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, said that he was more confident about the chances of success and said rescue operations would continued until at least Friday. But he said nothing had been heard from inside the Kursk despite earlier reports of sounds.

"It is necessary to take account of the psychology of submariners - when they know that rescue capsules are hovering above them, they keep silent,"

Officials said water appeared to be leaking into the submarine. The submarine suffered extensive damage after an explosion in the torpedo compartment at the front of the vessel, but the cause was not clear, the navy said. The submarine's conning tower was damaged and protective covers of two missile tubes on the vessel's right side were missing.

Even if the capsules successfully dock with the sub and sailors can enter it and find survivors, the craft can hold only 20 people at a time and officials say bringing it to the surface could take up to seven hours, a slow rise required to prevent the potentially crippling or fatal decompression sickness. Rescuers could also try to raise the submarine using giant pontoons, Kuroyedov said - a seemingly impossible prospect because the flooded craft weighs some 20,000 tons.

Another proposal called for raising the submarine to a vertical position so part of it protruded from the water. Russia refused offers from the United States and Britain to send trained rescue personnel and equipment even though the Russian navy lacks sophisticated rescue gear.

Navy spokesman Dygalo said coordinating the rescue with other countries would take too much time and "we cannot afford to waste it."

Officials said the Kursk's two nuclear reactors had been switched off and it was not carrying nuclear weapons.

Russian nuclear submarines have been involved in a string of accidents in recent decades. The Navy, like the rest of the Russian military, is desperately short of money and performs almost no maintenance on its ships.

Comments