Plight of Russian vessel Kursk brings memories of horror to the surface for long-retired sailors
By Bill Nichols and Andrea Stone
Survivors of submarine accidents make up a small, select and exceedingly grateful fraternity.
As the life-and-death struggle for survival continued for at least some of the 116 sailors trapped aboard a Russian nuclear submarine in the icy Barents Sea, these old sailors speak of a scene of almost unspeakable horror.
They remember a pitch-black living tomb, where calls for help consist of banging helplessly against the vessel's hull, where death could come by drowning or agonizing suffocation.
''I know what's going through those boys' minds,'' says Clayton Decker, 79, of Lakewood, Colo., one of nine survivors of the USS Tang, which sank in 1944 off the coast of China. ''We knew when we went aboard the submarine that we might end up with this iron cylinder being our tomb,'' Decker says.
The Tang plunged 180 feet after a torpedo misfired and struck the submarine after a skirmish with a Japanese convoy. Seventy-eight sailors died.
Today, Russian naval forces will try for a third time to rescue the crewmembers. The sub rests at a precarious angle beneath hundreds of feet of frigid Arctic waters.
''The only clear thing is that some people are alive, and that they are sending an emergency SOS message'' by banging against the submarine's hull, Russian navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov told Russia's RTR state television. He said the banging had grown ''fainter'' early today. However, other naval officials said that there had been no communication with the Kursk's crew since it went down Saturday and that the crew might already be dead.
For those who might be clinging to life in a dark, half-flooded ship, the odds are long indeed.
''There is almost no chance of survival,'' says Grigory Pasko, a former submarine officer now living in Vladivostok.
He says the crew might not last until the weekend because of dwindling oxygen reserves. ''So it is very simple. Either they die or we save them.''
Dan Persico, 82, of Amsterdam, N.Y., who survived the sinking of the USS Squalus in 1939, in which 26 died, remembers clearly what it was like: ''It was cold, dark, and I was anxious to get out of there.''
The plight of the Russian submarine, Persico says, ''brought back unpleasant memories,'' But Persico, who at 20 was the youngest crewmember aboard when the Squalus went down off the coast of New Hampshire, adds: ''You never lose hope.''
That outlook, that shaky confidence submariners learn to cling to even in the face of impending death, seemed to define the mood as a worldwide vigil continued over the wreck of the Kursk, a modern, 13,000-ton, guided missile submarine that is longer than a football field.
Russian officials tried -- so far in vain -- to lower a pressurized diving bell into the Arctic waters that would connect with the Kursk and slowly bring as many as 20 sailors at a time up to the surface.
''This can be compared to a space docking operation,'' Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov told reporters in Moscow. Russian officials said the capsule could take up to seven hours to reach the surface to prevent decompression sickness.
Late Tuesday, there also were unconfirmed reports out of Russia that the navy would try to lift the crippled submarine to the surface with inflatable pontoons if the diving-bell scenario failed. Experts say this harrowing scenario -- trying to somehow rescue living crewmembers from a crippled submarine -- is virtually unheard of because of the size of the vessel.
The Squalus was the last major submarine rescue. ''It's kind of like the Apollo 13 of submarines. Spaceships and subs have one thing in common: Either everything's working OK, or everyone's dead, and there's not that much in between,'' says John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.
Details from Russian officials were sketchy and sometimes contradictory about what had happened to the Kursk, which went down off the northern tip of Norway. One of eight giant Oscar-II class submarines in the Russian fleet, the Kursk was commissioned five years ago and represents the height of Russia's nuclear submarine technology.
In recent years, however, the Soviet and later the Russian fleets have been plagued by safety problems and cuts in maintenance.
Details were not available about the interior layout of the craft. In U.S. submarines roughly equivalent to the Kursk, sailors sleep stacked in vertical rows of three or four.
After first claiming that the vessel had crashed into another submarine, Russian officials said Tuesday that an explosion apparently had ripped through the craft, causing it to sink to the bottom of the sea Saturday.
If the explosion was inside the vessel's torpedo chamber, which might have been carrying conventional, non-nuclear warheads, many of those aboard might have been killed, naval analysts say.
Russian officials have said the Kursk was not carrying nuclear weapons, and its two nuclear reactors had been switched off. The sub is designed to carry 24 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles meant to knock out large surface ships such as aircraft carriers.
The little that was clear about the accident offered scant room for optimism.
Kuroyedov said Russian navy estimates indicate that anyone alive aboard the Kursk will run out of oxygen by Friday. As the hours count down, he said Russian authorities continue to have hope, while admitting it diminishes every day.
Russian television quoted President Vladimir Putin as telling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that ''chances were slim'' for rescuing the crew.
Meanwhile, a horrified, worldwide audience tried to imagine the scene aboard the submarine, whose occupants have not been able to communicate, besides the banging on the hull, with the outside world since it went down. Russian naval officials said efforts to reach the vessel and attach air and power lines so far had failed.
Oxygen would be the first concern, says Sherry Sontag, co-author of Blind Man's Bluff, a book about submarine espionage.
She notes that the reactor in a nuclear sub is what makes the air, and in the case of the Kursk, it's shut off.
''The guys are probably confined to their racks trying to conserve oxygen,'' she says. Although there are probably carbon dioxide scrubbers on board, ''The air probably is uncomfortable to breathe.''
When oxygen levels begin to fall, the sailors would begin breathing faster and losing dexterity, medical experts say. Symptoms would then advance to extreme fatigue, then a sense of panic, then a state of profound lethargy.
As oxygen levels fall toward 6% -- the normal level on a submarine would be 18-21% -- people begin to lose consciousness and might develop nausea or vomit. Below 5%, convulsions begin, and a person would gasp for air and finally stop breathing.
Death by drowning is another very real and present danger. Compartments of damaged subs often must be sealed when water leaks in, condemning to death anyone who might be caught inside. Russian officials say several compartments inside the Kursk already are flooded.
When the Squalus went down on its shakedown cruise, the cause was a catastrophic valve failure that allowed seawater to crash into the submarine's rear end.
As the submarine sank to the sea floor 240 feet below the surface, crews frantically sealed the hatches to prevent water from filling the entire sub. As they closed the last watertight door, three or four sailors squeezed through the hatch to safety.
Survivor Gerald McLees, 85, of Portsmouth, N.H., says no other sailors could be seen inside the doomed compartments. However, 26 sailors were trapped toward the craft's back end. ''We didn't know for sure until sometime after we went on the bottom. Later on we figured they must be drowned,'' says McLees, who was at the other end of the sub.
Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association, says that those aboard the Kursk are volunteers, the elite of the Russian navy, and are trained for such emergencies.
Farley says submariners are ''less fearful than most people. By virtue of being risk-takers, they know they're always coming near the edge, they're near death.'' Farley says he also believes the crew, if there are some still left alive, would be more calm and collected than many might think.
''They would be thinking about loved ones and confronting death -- how they lived their life,'' Farley says. ''Also, they trust the navy will rescue them. They're assuming the full force of the Russian navy will be there and figuring out a way, and if they can just stay cool and do the best they can, they'll get rescued.''
Survivors of the Squalus sinking, in which 33 sailors lived, basically agree.
Persico, a retired construction equipment salesman, was in the forward torpedo room when water gushed into an open valve in the rear of the diesel submarine. He was underwater for 48 hours and was in the last group brought up in a rescue bell -- a primitive version of the device being used on the Kursk.
''We laid in our bunks and waited for them to rescue us,'' Persico said. ''A lot of things went through my mind. We tried to conserve our energy. There was not a lot of talking.
''They had flashlights but were told not to use them to conserve power. It's not very comfortable to not see your hand in front of you for 39 hours.''
In the case of the Tang, Clayton and the other four survivors were forced to make a dangerous assent from the submarine using an escape hatch, a buoy line and emergency oxygen bags known as Momsen lungs. Making it to the top was no guarantee, but Decker says his thoughts lingered on his wife and 2-year-old son, as well as his naval training.
''If we didn't do anything but just sat there, we would have lived only two or three hours,'' Decker says.
About 32 men made it to the escape hatch. But of the 19 or 20 men who tried to climb up the buoy line, only five survived. Decker is the only one still living.
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