- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

A desperate Russian navy failed in two attempts yesterday to dock a rescue capsule with the crippled submarine Kursk, the giant missile boat that officials now believe was sunk by an explosion in the torpedo room.

With oxygen running short for 116 trapped crewmen, the navy was using two tethered escape capsules to reach one of the Kursk's two escape hatches as the sub listed to one side, about 400 feet below storm-whipped waters.

The Russian Itar-Tass news agency said a third attempt was under way early today in arctic waters of the Barents Sea 100 miles from Murmansk.

One navy official told Itar-Tass that the third rescue vessel would be manned but disclosed no other details of the operation.

"The underwater craft that we used overnight has exhausted its resources," said the navy press spokesman.

Earlier the navy said SOS taps from the ship's water-entombed hull were growing faint, perhaps indicating the crew was running out of oxygen.

"All we know is that there are still people alive, and they are signaling SOS," Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the navy commander, told RTR news. "What remains is our hope, which leaves us fewer and fewer chances every day. Our calculations show that by August 18 they will run out of oxygen."

He did not explain how the signals were transmitted. But a rapping sound from the pressure hull could be picked up via sonar by a nearby submarine.

Navy rescuers were not only fighting the clock. They faced horrendous storm conditions that made it doubly difficult to keep the rescue ship steady as its cable guided the capsules to the stricken vessel.

"It takes a lot of talent to do that," said retired U.S. Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, a former submarine service physician.

The Russian navy says the Kursk its length equivalent to 1* football fields may be listing 60 degrees on its side. This position would make it more difficult to align the escape hatch with the submersible's rescue hatch.

The capsules, similar to the U.S. Navy's McCann rescue chambers, have three-man crews. It is affixed to a sub's escape hatch by divers or a minisubmarine.

Norman Polmar, a Russian navy expert, said the bell can rescue six to 10 sailors at a time and take an hour to make each round trip. He said the capsule is likely stocked with medical supplies, oxygen and food.

"You need a line attached, a ship that is anchored and you need relatively smooth seas," he said. "The odds do not appear to be in their favor."

There was mounting evidence yesterday that an accident in the torpedo compartment felled the ship. RTR television showed Adm. Kuroyedov using a diagram to point out damage to the ship's bow. A torpedo door was wide open on one side, and on the other, vessel debris littered the sea floor.

U.S. submarines monitoring the naval exercise detected an explosion Saturday morning.

Such an event would have likely flooded one or more of the Kursk's 10 watertight compartments before the 116-man crew could have sealed off the rest of the ship. Naval experts say the 500-foot-long submarine is designed to withstand no more than one flooded compartment before loss of buoyancy leaves the 14,000-ton ship uncontrollable.

"The projection of possible consequences of the accident in the Kursk for the lives of its crew remains extremely grave," said Adm. Kuroyedov, backing off an earlier statement that the Kursk had collided with a foreign vessel.

The Kursk sank Saturday during a major weekend naval exercise called "SummerX." Five other subs took part, firing ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and torpedoes. The Kursk is equipped with 24 cruise-missile launchers and is deployed to destroy enemy ships.

Retired Navy Cmdr. John Homer, who served on U.S. nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, said torpedo-room accidents can stem from fuel leaks or human error in loading the weapon into a launch tube between a breach door and the outer door. He said that as the cash-strapped Russian navy deteriorated this decade, it sent poorly trained submariners to sea.

"Evidently they took on too much water, and it took them to the bottom," Cmdr. Homer said, adding "Now, they don't maintain their ships. They send people to sea who are not sufficiently trained."

The Russian navy said the crew shut off the ship's two nuclear reactors. The power plants not only propel the boat, but also generate electricity to produce oxygen. Experts said this means the air supply must come from storage tanks and diminishing battery power. The ship may be equipped with chlorate candles, which, when lit, produce oxygen.

Adm. Scott said that as the Kursk's oxygen supply lowers, the crew risks pulmonary edema and cerebral swelling. As the carbon dioxide rises, they face severe headaches, disorientation and unconsciousness.

"There's major concern about hypothermia," he said. "The inside of the submarine starts to become chilled by the outside sea water. If they are able to get some source of power for heat or for air that would certainly prolong their survivability."

Designated as Oscar-class by NATO, the Kursk-type missile boats are the world's second-largest submarines. Only the Russian 33,000-ton Typhoon ballistic missile boat is larger.

The Kursk not only features the latest weapons and sonar equipment, it also has crew amenities such as a gymnasium, solarium, swimming pool, sauna and pet facility.

At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley told reporters that the United States had renewed its offer to help via a note from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. On Monday, Moscow declined the same offer from White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.

Naval experts say pride and a desire to keep the Kursk's capabilities secret are Russia's motives for refusing outside assistance.

Adm. Quigley said that if U.S. personnel were to help, and perhaps risk their lives, they would want to know specifics about the ship's design.

"That would be preceded, of course, by very detailed technical discussions with the Russian navy, with their design experts, so that we would have some clarity as to the current state of play on the submarine and how it's situated on the bottom," he said.

The U.S. Navy maintains two deep-water submarine rescue vehicles, as well as other submersibles used in salvage operations. The Russians own similar equipment, but American naval experts believe they are not well maintained.

Interfax news agency quoted Adm. Kuroyedov as saying if the rescue fails, the navy will attempt to raise the entire vessel with 400-ton inflatable pontoons.

But American naval experts say the Kursk, at that depth of water pressure, would weigh 19,000 tons. They said no ship of that weight has been pulled from the open seas.

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