Note found in dead sailor's pocket tells terse tale of underwater terror

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MURMANSK, Russia (AP) _ Huddled in a destroyed submarine on the sea floor, a Russian sailor wrote a terse account of how he and 22 comrades tried in vain to escape, then scrawled a last message to his family, Russian naval officials said Thursday.

The note was found in the pocket of Lt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, whose body was one of the first to be recovered from the nuclear submarine Kursk that sank Aug. 12 with 118 men aboard. The message was the first firm evidence that any of the crew initially survived explosions that shattered the submarine.

Written a few hours after the sub plunged to the bottom of the Barents Sea, the note tells a horrifying story in eerily straightforward sentences.

``All the crew from the sixth, seventh and eighth compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made this decision as a result of the accident,'' Russian navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov quoted the note as saying.

``None of us can get to the surface,'' the message continued.

Kolesnikov's handwriting in the first part of the note was neat, Kuroyedov said during a meeting with the victims' relatives. But after the submarine's emergency lights went out, the 27-year-old seaman from St. Petersburg began to scrawl and desperation set in.

``I am writing blindly,'' Kuroyedov quoted the latter part of the note as saying.

The rest of the note was private and would be shown to Kolesnikov's family, said Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, the Northern Fleet chief of staff.

Most of the Kursk's crew apparently died instantly in the explosions that tore open the Kursk's first six compartments or within minutes as water roared into the submarine.

But the knowledge that some remained alive for hours revived the horror that gripped the nation after the sinking.

``I feel pain, enormous pain,'' Kolesnikov's widow, Olga, said on the NTV television channel. ``I had a premonition my husband didn't die instantly. The pain I felt then has come true.''

The recovered bodies are to be flown on Saturday to Severomorsk, the Northern Fleet's main port, for a memorial service.

The Russian government has been widely criticized at home for a slow and seemingly confused response to the disaster. Russian mini-submarines tried unsuccessfully for days to open the Kursk's escape hatch. There were reports that noises from the wreckage could have come from trapped sailors banging on the hull.

Two days after the Kursk went down, Russia made the sinking public. Alhough Western countries quickly offered to help, it was another two days before a Norwegian diving team was asked to assist. The Norwegians eventually opened the hatch but determined that the sub was flooded and the crew dead.

Kolesnikov's note gives no indication of whether any of the crew survived beyond a few hours. Motsak said the note was completed by 3:15 p.m. local time, less than four hours after ships in the area registered two powerful explosions, apparently the blasts that wrecked the Kursk.

Igor Spassky, the head of the Rubin design bureau that developed the Kursk, said at a news conference Thursday that the crewmen had had some chance of getting out on their own through the escape hatch but apparently didn't do that because of injuries.

However, even if they had gotten out the hatch, it is unclear whether they could have survived the crushing pressure 355 feet underwater or if they could have reached the surface alive.

Kolesnikov's body was one of four recovered by a Russian-Norwegian diving team after five days of painstaking work this week to cut holes in the top of the submarine. Motsak said that after the note was discovered, the divers were concentrating on searching for bodies in the ninth compartment, but added that rough seas hampered their work Thursday.

The complex underwater operation is being performed with advanced diving equipment, including robots and mechanical arms. Divers have used an instrument that sprays pressurized water mixed with diamond dust to cut the Kursk's 2-inch thick inner steel hull.

There have been no reports of radiation leaking from the submarine. The reactors shut down automatically.

Kuroyedov had warned that he might cancel the recovery effort if experts ruled that divers' lives were in danger. Two widows of Kursk crew members pleaded with the divers Wednesday not to take excessive risks.

But President Vladimir Putin had promised to recover the bodies at an emotional meeting with the crew's relatives shortly after the disaster. The government seemed bent on conducting the costly effort despite the shortage of funds for the military.

Some Russian media have pointed out that, by stubbornly conducting the risky effort, the government seeks to vindicate its confused response to the sinking.

The cause of the disaster remains unknown. Authorities have theorized about a collision with a Western submarine or a World War II-era mine or an internal malfunction as possible reasons.