DAILY MAIL (London) August 18, 2000

Giant blast may have killed half of doomed sub's crew

Ian Thomas

MORE than half the 118 men on the crippled Russian submarine probably died when a massive explosion sent it plunging to the bed of the Barents Sea on Saturday, experts said last night.

And there is little chance any of the rest will survive until the British rescue craft sent to the scene can reach them.

That was the grim scenario painted by U.S.

intelligence which had been monitoring the underwater war games when the Kursk was blown apart.

Spying devices monitored an explosion in a torpedo tube after the skipper had been given permission to fire. This may have been a poorly maintained torpedo battery catching fire and detonating a warhead or a torpedo overheating and exploding.

At this stage there would have been no cause for alarm on board a submarine the Russian navy liked to boast of as 'unsinkable', with its ten massive bulkhead divisions designed to contain flooding.

But within seconds there was a far larger, devastating thunderclap as the initial explosion spread to the torpedo stockpile, igniting them in an horrendous blast which ripped through the hull, causing the freezing Arctic waters to come rushing in.

A Russian navy spokesman said the sub had sunk to floor of the Barents Sea 'like a flash'.

Those who died could be viewed as the lucky ones. For the survivors, the torment was just beginning.

The biggest threat to them would have been carbon dioxide poisoning or exposure. The sub has equipment to clear CO2 from the air but it is thought to have been knocked out by the explosions. 'Any survivors will not run out of oxygen, they will suffocate due to a build up of excessive levels of carbon dioxide,' said John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists.

'They have no way of getting rid of it.' There was growing concern last night over the safety of the two nuclear reactors aboard the ship. The Russians are adamant there is no danger, and monitoring devices controlled by Norway have not picked up any radiation leaks.

But environmentalists fear the reactors' cooling systems may have been disabled. If that happened and the reactors kept going or were restarted, the nuclear material inside could reach temperatures of up to 3,600 degrees and melt their way through the water-and-steel containment vessels.

The Kremlin issued its most sombre prognosis of the crisis yesterday.

Premier Mikhail Kasyanov said conditions on the Kursk were 'close to catastrophic'.

The crew of the British LR5 submersible hope to have the state-of-the-art rescue craft over the site of the Kursk, 60 miles north of the Russian port of Murmansk, by tomorrow evening.

The commanders put the most hopeful face they could on what looks like mission impossible.

Asked if anyone could still be alive, Royal Navy Commander Alan Hoskins said: 'I wouldn't use the word likely, but it's possible. We've got to be optimistic. There's always a chance.' The Kursk lies 350ft beneath stormy Arctic seas at an angle of not more than 20 degrees, Russia has informed British officials.

Hoskins said the British mini-sub was able to operate in currents of 2.5 knots.

The LR5 is expected to be compatible with the Russian submarine, meaning that a pressurised link should be possible between the two vessels.

But a fear is that the sailors if alive could be too weak to open the hatch.

Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to Tony Blair by telephone last night to thank him for sending the LR5.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister, who is on holiday in Tuscany, said: 'President Putin said he and the whole Russian people were very grateful for Britain's assistance which he said reflected the friendly relations between the two countries.' Further Russian attempts to gain access to the Kursk failed yesterday.

Putin faces a furore as Russia digs the graves

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin faced a furious backlash yesterday for his delay in calling in Western help to save the lives of his submariners.

He was accused of allowing national pride and an obsession with secrecy to take precedence over an efficient rescue effort.

Criticism was heightened by the fact that he remained at his Black Sea holiday retreat as the nation was engulfed by grief.

One woman shouted on a Moscow radio phone-in: 'How can he enjoy sun and sea in Sochi while such a tragedy is unfolding. Doesn't he have a heart?' Vera Staroseltseva, whose son Dmitry, 19, was a submariner on the Kursk, condemned the top brass as 'bastards' for the sluggish response to the emergency.

'They should have got them out long ago,' she sobbed. 'The foreigners offered us help straight away but they kept delaying it.' Like many relatives, she suspects the first priority of the admirals was to rescue the submarine and get it back to active service, rather than saving the men.

The toughest criticism for Putin came from a media which normally finds few faults with the president.

Behind it was the feeling that he has turned the government into such a one-man rule, it becomes gridlocked in his absence.

The most damning came in Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, which declared in bold red type: 'The sailors on the Kursk fell silent yesterday. Why has the president been silent?' Izvestia wrote sarcastically: 'There was only one man who kept silent.

The Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Russia. The honorary sailor.'

In a poll, 73 per cent of people called for Putin to return to Moscow and take personal charge of the rescue.

At Severomorsk, the closed port that acts as headquarters to Russia's Northern Fleet, there were reports that the navy had already ordered preparation of graves for the men.

Copyright 2000 Associated Newspapers Ltd.