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Time running out for 116 men

Date: 16/08/2000

By STEVEN MUFSON in Washington

A diving bell lowered over the prone hulk of the Russian nuclear submarine the Kursk could be the best chance of survival for 116 sailors trapped on board, news reports said yesterday.

The diving bell, a small vessel capable of carrying 10-15 people to the surface at a time, has an airlock which would allow the rescued crew to acclimatise to pressure changes as they travelled to the surface, avoiding the bends or decompression sickness.

The navy, which has not made public details of its rescue plans, was quoted on Monday as saying the diving bell was being hooked up to provide air and energy to the Kursk.

A naval expert with Jane's Information Group, Mr Paul Beaver, said he believed there was a good chance of rescuing the crew, but only if the Russians asked for Western help if they needed it. "I'm not sure the Russians have got the technical expertise to do it," he said.

United States-based submarine experts said the 152 metre-long, 14,000-tonne submarine with a double-layer hull was designed to withstand a torpedo attack and had at least two escape mechanisms for the crew.

Mr John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists, said: "Obviously something seriously is wrong, because this is a big, robust sub that was designed to be hard to sink."

30 YEARS OF DISASTERS
April 1970 Soviet submarine disappears in the Atlantic off the Spanish coast. All 88 crew members die.
Aug 1980 Fire on board an Echo I nuclear submarine off Okinawa. Nine die and 50 injured.
June 1983 Soviet submarine with 90 men sinks off the Kamchatka peninsula in the northern Pacific.
Oct 1986 Fire breaks out on a Soviet submarine in the west Atlantic. Three deaths reported.
April 1989 The Komosomolets submarine sinks off Norway after an explosion, killing 42.
May 1992 Explosion on a submarine of the Russian Northern Fleet. One dead.
Jan 2000 Nuclear submarine surfaces in the Barents Sea because of the accidental opening of an airlock. Two seamen sent out to close the airlock swept to their deaths

Experts said the initial Russian reports that the submarine's torpedo bays were flooded would not explain the vessel's sinking on Sunday, unless one of the torpedoes had exploded.

Last night Russia's Prime-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed United States official as saying two US submarines near a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea heard an explosion early on Sunday.

Mr George Sviatov, a submarine architect with the Soviet Navy for 29 years and now a defence consultant in Washington, said more than 40 per cent of the hull would have to be flooded for the Kursk not to be able to surface on its own. At the submarine's present depth, of about 150 metres, it is extremely unlikely crew members would escape without sophisticated equipment. The water pressure would make opening the hatches difficult and dangerous.

Even if crew members could get out and possessed special breathing gear they would risk death from the extreme pressure or hypothermia.

Norwegian researchers warned that the submarine could eventually pose a serious hazard to what they called the most important fishing area in the world. But Mr Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the National Resources Defence Council, a US environmental organisation, said he did not think there were any immediate environmental concerns.

The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times

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