Divers Unable To Enter Russian Sub

Sunday, August 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) — Norwegian divers struggled to open the escape hatch on a nuclear submarine that sank with 118 men aboard, but they found no sign of life Sunday as Russian officials said most of the vessel was flooded in minutes when it went down.

The Russian navy has all but ruled out hope that any of the crew remains alive nine days after the Kursk sank, crippled by a massive explosion.

President Vladimir Putin, widely criticized for his slow and low-key public response to the crisis, pledged Sunday that ``until the last minute, we will do everything to save everyone who could be saved.''

But he did not appear optimistic. ``Regrettably, sometimes it's not us but circumstances which determine how the situation develops,'' he said.

The divers worked for most of the day and well into the night. They tried several times to wrest the hatch open with a crane but failed, Russia's RTR television network reported.

The divers found signs that some of the 118 crewmen may have tried to get out but were unable to open the escape hatch, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said on RTR. In a grim indication of what rescuers are likely to find when they get into the Kursk, Klebanov said there might be a body in the escape chamber.

The divers, working 350 feet below the surface of the Barents Sea, were moving slowly because of the depth. Each dive was taking several hours, navy officials said.

Speaking from the command ship directing rescue operations, Klebanov said the divers might have to go to a navy base to determine whether their bulky diving suits could safely pass through the escape hatch if it is opened. That would cause a further delay.

No decision had been made on whether a British mini-submarine which arrived Saturday would be used in the rescue operation. Klebanov said the escape hatch was so badly damaged that it was unlikely the British vessel could latch on.

``The British submarine is similar to ours, so we believe that it will be unable to dock either,'' he said.

Conflicting signals emerged from the three-nation rescue operation. Russian officials have said for days that the escape hatch is severely mangled, but a spokesman for the Norwegian military said Sunday it was in good shape.

``We confirm that the hatch is intact,'' Captain Erland Raanes told The Associated Press by telephone. The hatch is ``so good that there are possibilities there.''

But he said later that an unspecified pressure problem was making it difficult to open the hatch.

New details emerged Sunday of how severely the Kursk was shattered in the first few minutes. For days, the Russian navy had insisted the submarine was in good condition.

``Water almost instantly flooded the submarine's hull up to the fifth or sixth compartments. The crew in those sections died almost instantaneously and the submarine became uncontrollable,'' Klebanov said.

Some of the crew might have survived for a time in the three aft compartments. Norwegian military spokesman Raanes said the divers found indications that some air pockets may remain in the wreck.

The Norwegian operation appeared to be the first time divers had descended to the Kursk since rescue efforts began a week ago. Russian escape capsules tried to reach the Kursk repeatedly, but the Russian navy reportedly had no skilled divers.

Russian officials have said the Kursk's nuclear reactors apparently switched off in the accident, but the new evidence of how the submarine was torn apart raised concerns that they could have been damaged in the explosion.

With hope for survivors all but gone, officials indicated the emphasis was shifting to what caused the tragedy on the Kursk, one of the navy's newest and most powerful submarines.

A probable scenario was that a torpedo in the Kursk's forward compartment blew up, setting off a much bigger explosion. U.S. and Norwegian authorities detected two explosions in the area last Saturday at the time the Kursk was lost.

Klebanov said Sunday that a World War II mine or a collision with a foreign submarine were possible causes. The U.S. and British navies, which often have submarines in the area, denied their vessels were involved.

Klebanov said there were up to three foreign submarines in the area when the Kursk was lost and that requests for information from foreign countries had not been answered. He did not specify which countries he meant.