- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2000

MOSCOW The last scribbling of a dying man reveals that at least 23 sailors from the Kursk's 118-member crew remained alive, trapped and increasingly desperate as the air ran out aboard the sunken nuclear submarine, Russian officials said yesterday.

A note found in the shirt pocket of Lt. Capt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, the commander of the sub's turbine section and one of four bodies recovered from the Kursk's hull so far, details the chilling last hours of his crew and adds another level of confusion to official events surrounding one of the worst disasters in Russian naval history.

"I am writing blind," the letter said, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

"It's 13:15 [1:15 p.m.]. All personnel from sections six, seven and eight have moved to section nine. There are 23 people here. We have made the decision because none of us can escape."

Section nine, the aft of the 500-foot vessel and the part farthest away from the nuclear reactors, is the section the submariners are taught to retreat to in cases of emergency. While naval officials said the note provides important operational information, it did not provide conclusive evidence about what caused the Kursk to sink.

The front of the note, written in "clear, telegraphic style," described in specific terms the movements of 23 crew members, and indicates that emergency support systems were working immediately after the accident, according to Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, who spoke on Russian television.

On the back of the official dispatch, Lt. Kolesnikov penned a love letter to his wife Olga, Adm. Kuroyedov said, noting that his handwriting had gotten much sloppier. Although apparently written less than an hour later, Lt. Kolesnikov said he had "to grope his way in the dark," indicating emergency systems had already failed, Adm. Kuroyedov said.

Keeping with the Russian military practice of announcing misleading and contradictory information throughout the Kursk rescue mission, the head of the Northern Fleet, Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak later told Russian television yesterday that the note was written "in the period from 13:34 to 15:15 [1:34 p.m. to 3:15 p.m.] on August 12, that is the day of the accident." No explanation was given as to why this account differed from Adm. Kuroyedov's.

The question remained whether the 118-member crew might have been saved if Russia hadn't waited for days before accepting foreign aid. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, the official in charge of the rescue process, said yesterday that "there was no way to save the sailors," even those now proven to have been alive after the blasts.

Nevertheless, the note is expected to cause military officials to revise their official timeline of events.

Official reports until now said the navy did not lose contact with the submarine until 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 12, hours after Lt. Kolesnikov apparently finished writing. U.S. naval vessels in the area recorded hearing two explosions about 11:30 p.m. Moscow time on Aug. 12.

The Russian navy only announced it had lost contact with the submarine Aug. 14. At that point, they told reporters the Kursk had technical faults and they had detected sailors tapping SOS messages on the hull. Only 11 days later did divers open the escape hatch, finding the sub filled with water.

The families of the Kursk crew have watched the recovery process with mixed emotions.

After initial demands to Russian President Vladimir Putin to raise the corpses of their loved ones, some of the sailors' families have asked the government to drop the salvage operation and let their relatives remain at the bottom of the sea, as naval tradition dictates. Government officials have told relatives that they would probably find most of the bodies mutilated due to the explosions.

Olga Kolesnikov told RTR Network television she was overjoyed to have her husband's body returned.

"He is the dearest person in the world to me. I wanted to see him again," she said wiping tears from her eyes. "I want to have this note."

But his mother, Irina, told the Russian television network NTV in an interview in St. Petersburg earlier this week, that she did not want her son's body retrieved at the cost of another life.

"I do not know how they will manage to get him out," she said.

Diving operations to recover more bodies are scheduled to continue, weather permitting. The Barents Sea has become rougher in recent days, and snowstorms are expected over the weekend.

Tomorrow, the navy plans to hold a memorial service for the recovered crew.

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