- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

Russia, after a series of failed attempts to rescue 118 sailors entombed on the submarine Kursk, relented yesterday and asked Britain to send a minisub specially designed for deep-water docking and rescues.
Meanwhile, a Navy source told The Washington Times that a "great percentage" of the Kursk is flooded, raising questions about how many sailors could have survived the sea disaster.
The British Defense Ministry quickly dispatched a privately owned LR5 submersible and its three-man civilian crew from a base in Scotland. Russia had refused help from the West since announcing the sea disaster on Monday.
But the LR5 is not scheduled to arrive at the rescue scene on the Barents Sea until Saturday night, perhaps too late for a crew whose oxygen is running low and whose taps of SOS on the ship's hull grew faint, then stopped.
There is another hurdle besides travel time. Before the LR5 makes its dive, the British want to know if the watertight ring on its underbelly is compatible with the Kursk's escape hatch. The ministry is flying LR5 rings to Murmansk and, by today, will try to mate them with an Oscar II-class sub like the Kursk, said Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Jenkin.
Cmdr. Jenkin told The Times if there is no hatch-ring match, the mission may not come off.
"It would certainly raise significant questions," he said. "Can we get around this problem? I don't know … I would assume the Russians have an element of confidence or they would not have made the request for assistance."
He added, "If this chance fails, then I think the chance of survival must be very low indeed."
In Kursk, the central Russian city for which the sunken vessel takes its name, the stress was taking its toll on relatives of the trapped seamen.
"I cannot bring myself to do anything, just sit and wait," said Valentina Staroseltseva, 51, whose 20-year-old son, Dmitry, is one of many Kursk natives on board the stricken submarine.
Her face drawn and with fatigue showing under her eyes, she told the Associated Press that when she learned of the disaster she sat down in front of the television "and have remained sitting here since."
The 30-foot-long, self-propelled rescue sub capable of removing 16 sailors at a time and maneuvering in strong currents was flown to the Norwegian port of Trondheim. It was scheduled to be hoisted onto a French-owned salvage ship for the three-day trip to the rescue site, where the Kursk lists to one side in up to 500 feet of water.
Russia's public SOS came amid public criticism of President Vladimir Putin's new government for refusing offers of international help as the crippled sub foundered for a fifth day.
The navy tried, and failed, at least four times Tuesday and yesterday to dock with the giant missile boat, using tethered diving chambers and a small submarine. The navy is handicapped by stormy seas and strong undersea currents that foiled attempts for a precise undersea mating.
Mr. Putin, on vacation at a Black Sea resort, made his first public comment yesterday during the national crisis. "From the moment it became clear that something had happened, all necessary and possible efforts to save the craft and its crew have been carried out," he said on Russian TV.
"Unfortunately, the weather is very bad. A storm has raged for two days, and sailors could not use all the means at their disposal."
Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, Russian navy commander, changed his estimate for the Kursk's ability to produce oxygen. He had said air would run out tomorrow, but now says the critical date is Aug. 24. The admiral said Russian submersibles would continue to dive until the LR5 arrived, and he gave an upbeat outlook for the crew's survival.
"One needs to take into account the mentality of submarine officers. Once they knew rescue capsules were above them, they maintained silence," he said, explaining a lack of SOS taps in recent hours. "Now I feel far more confident that the operation to rescue the Kursk crew will produce a result. The capsules will work until the result is achieved."
With its two reactors shut down, the cruise-missile boat has only a depleted battery system to power the oxygen-generation system. The vessel likely has other stopgap features, such as oxygen-producing candles and air-storage cylinders.
Experts say the most imminent danger is death by carbon dioxide poisoning. Subs typically carry a chemical powder to absorb carbon dioxide, but that process works for only hours, not days.
The Kursk sank Saturday morning during a major Russian naval exercise involving surface ships and five other submarines. The subs fired ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and torpedoes.
Officials believe an explosion in a forward torpedo compartment tore a hole in the ship and flooded one or more of the ship's 10 compartments, sending it to the bottom.
The Navy source told The Times that "at least" half the ship is flooded.
Dubbed an "underwater helicopter," the LR5 is operated by the Rumic engineering company near Glasgow, Scotland, and is leased exclusively to the British Defense Ministry.
In a press statement, Rumic said the minisub is capable of hovering above a listing sub such as the Kursk and attaching a watertight ring to the sub's escape hatch.
"When it reaches a submarine, it links up with the vessel hatch via a ring on the underside of its casing," the statement said. "The first stage of a rescue involves using the connection between the subs to drain excess water. Personnel can then be transferred to the LR5, 16 at a time."
The battery-powered craft is 30 feet long and 10 feet wide.
Rumic said the LR5 has a sophisticated system to see in the sea's murky depths. Visibility around the Kursk has been reported to be as good as 16 feet and as poor as zero.

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