Rescue Attempts Fail as Russia Calls for Aid

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 16, 2000

_____On the Web_____
Oscar Class Submarine from Federation of American Scientists
Oscar II Technical Specs from Jane's Fighting Ships
Bellona Foundation on Russian Nuclear Vessel Accidents
Russian Naval Forces from The Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
Slingsby Engineering on the LR5 rescue submarine
___ The Kursk Submarine ___
Launched: Commissioned for service, January 1995; launched, May 1994.
Crew: 107, including 48 officers
Weight: 13,900 tons
Length: 500 feet
Speed: 28 knots dived, 15 knots surfaced
Diving Depth: 980 feet
Engines: Two nuclear reactors
Weapons: Up to 24 Chelomey SS-N-19 missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads; Torpedoes or anti-submarine Novator missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads.

Source: Associated Press

___ Russian Sub Accidents ___
July 1961 8 people died when radiation spread through the USSR's first nuclear powered submarine.
March 1968 A Soviet Golf-2 class sub with three nuclear SS-N-5 missiles sank in the Pacific.
April 1970 A Soviet November class nuclear powered attack submarine sank in the Atlantic.
Sept. 1977 A Soviet Delta-1 class nuclear-powered sub accidentally jettisoned a nuclear warhead.
Oct. 1986 A Soviet Yankee-class nuclear-powered sub with 16 SS-N-6 missiles and 2 nuclear torpedoes sank near Bermuda.
April 1989 A Soviet Mike class nuclear-powered attack submarine sank off Norway, killing 42.
March 1993 A Russian Delta-3 class nuclear-powered ballistic missile sub was stuck by the U.S. nuclear-powered attack sub USS Grayling in the Barents Sea.
Source: Reuters

MOSCOW, Aug. 16 –– Rescue teams working in churning seas failed again today to reach the stranded crew of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk, and Russia requested British and Norwegian help amid waning hopes for the increasingly imperiled sailors.

At least three attempts by mini-submarines to dock with a rear escape hatch failed overnight and today. A fourth reportedly was underway. Strong currents along the floor of the Barents Sea, poor visibility and the sharp angle of the listing vessel's deck made a hookup impossible, Russian officials said. One of the rescue vehicles was almost lost due to strong currents.

In a turnabout, the government invited British and Norwegian assistance. After making contact through the British Embassy in Moscow, an LR5 rescue submarine was flown from Scotland to Norway today to prepare to work the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea.

This evening, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Avdeyev said Russia would also accept help from Norway.

The rhythmic sound of tapping from the submarine's interior stopped Tuesday afternoon, the Interfax news agency said, raising fears that the survivors of the weekend explosion and sinking had died; the crew faced the twin hazards of dwindling oxygen supplies and a buildup of poisonous carbon dioxide. Adm. Vladimir Kuroyodev, the navy commander, played down the silence. "One needs to know the mentality of submarine officers. Once they know rescue capsules are above them, they maintain silence," he said.

Russia has been riveted by the crisis over the sub, and a chorus of public criticism of the official response to the sinking gained strength.

Authorities revised their figures for the numbers of sailors inside the Kursk, from 116 to 118.

After today's failures, the navy was showing signs of desperation. Officials scrambled to find alternative ways to rescue the Kursk, which sank during a large-scale training exercise. Kuroyodev said salvagers may try to attach giant pontoons to the craft and lift it from its silty resting place 324 feet beneath the waves.

For the first time, President Vladimir Putin spoke out on the disaster. From his vacation hideaway at Sochi on the Black Sea, he described the Kursk's situation as "difficult and critical." With a round of finger-pointing underway, a tragedy was quickly becoming a political liability. Putin went out of his way to answer the emerging criticism. He denied that the navy had hesitated before launching rescue operations. "Nobody waited a single minute," he said.

National attention to the undersea drama was intense. Pedestrians on busy Moscow streets asked strangers for news of the rescue. Telephone callers flooded the lines of radio stations offering their opinions.

Families of the crew gathered in Murmansk, near the Kursk's home port, and at military offices throughout Russia, trying to glean a measure of hope from opaque official statements. They were in despair. "Each news program is like a death sentence," said Galina Belogunya, wife of Viktor Belogunya, an officer on the Kursk.

Galina Belogunya described the frustration over sparse official information. "There is nothing more scary," she said. "Sunday seemed like hell for us. Rumors only."

Belogunya and other relatives met with naval officers at submarine headquarters in Vidyaevo, near Murmansk. But the news was vague. "They said on television that evacuation of the crew would start at 4 p.m. Just what were they doing before that? I think for the past two days, the bosses in Moscow were trying to save the sub. They wanted to save this valuable thing at the expense of lives," Belogunya said.

Newspapers and private citizens began to question the efficiency of the rescue effort and the truth of military reports.

Callers to radio stations criticized the government's initial rejection of help from abroad. Some remarked that pessimistic assessments of the chances of rescue contradicted the navy's insistence that the equipment on hand was adequate. Radio surveys gave low marks to the authorities for their handling of the crisis.

Sevodnya newspaper, owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, a media magnate out of favor with Putin, said that "if the Kremlin is to accept offers of help, it will have to swallow its pride." Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which belongs to Boris Berezovsky, a Kremlin insider who has turned against Putin, ran the headline: "If the crew of the Kursk is not saved, the reputation of the Russian government will be lost beyond hope."

Even government television sharply queried its own correspondent on why the government said the ship sank Sunday when it appears to have gone down Saturday. The correspondent said simply that information is lacking.

Parliamentary vice-speaker Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to the United States, worried that the military "likes to pretend that everything is okay."

With such complaints in the air, naval officials defended the training of the crew. They also revived the accusation that NATO ships monitoring the exercise were to blame for the sinking. Officials at the Northern Fleet told Interfax news agency that three NATO subs were in the area of the maneuvers, but were "driven out."

"It is this incident with the NATO submarines that underlies the version [that] the Kursk collided with an unidentified submarine," an official said.

But reports emerged that the Kursk did not have backup batteries aboard as it normally would during extended stays at sea. Because last weekend's exercises were scheduled to last three days, the batteries were left behind. The batteries could have powered oxygen regeneration units, Sevodnya newspaper said.

Official accounts of the rescue mission also fed suspicions of incompetence. This morning, when announcing the launch of the third effort, naval officials said the fleet's most sophisticated mini-sub, the Bester, was put into action. The Bester is supposed to be able to navigate through strong currents that had buffeted previous submersible capsules. In effect, the Russians had saved the best for last; no one explained why the Bester was kept out of action until today.

The British mini-sub is operated by a three-person crew and is capable of holding 16 passengers. It has enough life support to allow crew members to stay submerged for 4½ days. In Moscow, officials were skeptical that the docking mechanisms would be compatible with the escape hatches on the Kursk.

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