UPDATE Russian Sub: what happened?

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Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK

What happened to the Kursk?

Russian TV showed the ruined nose of the Kursk in blue By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

The cause of the disaster that befell the Kursk K-141 submarine is a subject as murky as the mixture of silt and water in which it now lies on the floor of the Barents Sea.

As soon as the Russian navy admitted an accident had occurred, it put forward two possible theories - either a collision or an explosion. But it has settled on neither.

Pictures of the ruined vessel are reported to show massive damage from the front to the conning tower, but are little help with diagnosis.

A Russian naval officer told the Interfax news agency they were compatible with both the collision and the explosion theories.

Air tanks

A third theory, put forward by the Norwegian environmental pressure group Bellona, is that the Kursk could have been involved in both a collision and an explosion.

If the giant submarine had collided with another vessel, then that vessel would also have been seriously damaged - but none has been found.

The collision theory therefore implies an impact against the sea bed.

This, according to Bellona, would have caused tanks of pressurised air inside the submarine to explode, causing major damage to the superstructure.

The pressurised air tanks, and the submarine's ballast tanks, are situated between its inner and outer hulls, which are three feet apart.

In their suppositions about an explosion, Russian officials have raised the possibility of an explosion inside the torpedo compartment at the front of the submarine - or an explosion outside the submarine, possibly caused by a floating mine.


But Bellona, which works closely with retired Russian naval officers, is sceptical about the likelihood of an explosion in the torpedo compartment.

It points out that torpedoes used to explode, occasionally, inside torpedo tubes - but in those days they were driven by combustible liquid fuel, whereas now they are pushed out by pressure.

The Russian defence analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, has also pointed out that the hull of the Kursk, with 10 separate waterproof compartments, was designed to remain floating even after a direct torpedo hit.

Bellona favours two theories:

Human error: The submarine was at a depth of 40 metres when a pilot shifted the controls to manual, accidentally steering downwards. In a matter of seconds the submarine hit the sea bed and pressurised air tanks exploded.

Spontaneous explosion: A tank containing pressurised air exploded spontaneously, either because oil from the compressor leaked into it, or because of a fracture in the wall.

It is unclear how any of these theories would tie in with the information from US surveillance that there were two explosions, seconds apart, as the Kursk hit trouble - the second louder than the first.


Experts say the scale of the damage indicates that there are likely to have been many casualties on board.

It is also thought that whatever happened to the Kursk it happened quickly - so quickly that it could not even send out a distress call, or release an emergency beacon.

Meanwhile, new doubts have arisen regarding the news disseminated by the Russian navy on Tuesday that seamen inside the vessel had been communicating with rescuers by tapping on the submarine wall.

Pavel Felgenhauer says the sounds detected were never more than a faint knocking sound coming from somewhere inside the vessel.

And a US intelligence analysis, details of which were apparently leaked to the US media, is said to indicate that no communication of any kind was heard from inside the submarine at any time after the disaster struck.


Rescue of Russian Sub Fails Again

by BARRY RENFREW Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW (AP) -- Underwater rescue capsules fighting to reach 118 seamen trapped on a Russian nuclear submarine failed again Thursday as new evidence suggested a massive explosion shattered large areas of the vessel and many sailors had no time to escape.

Navy officials said there were no signs of life on the vessel, but some of the crew could still be alive. Rescue capsules trying to link up with the submarine for the past three days were again driven back Thursday by racing currents and swirling sand in the inky darkness on the sea bottom.

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said Thursday the situation was ''close to catastrophic,'' according to Russian news reports.

A British rescue team heading for the scene by ship was not expected to arrive until Saturday, raising fears it would be too late. A Norwegian rescue team was expected to take even longer, not reaching the scene until early Monday.

The navy has given contradictory estimates of how long the Kursk's oxygen could last, but some officers say air generators may have been destroyed when the submarine slammed into the sea bed last Saturday.

Top navy and government officials met Thursday to review the rescue effort and study new approaches, but officials gave no details. The committee would consider how to use a British mini-submarine being rushed to the scene, Russian news agencies reported.

Film of the submarine being studied Thursday showed massive damage reaching from the front to the conning tower that would have sent the vessel crashing to the bottom in seconds, navy officials said. The control room where most of the crew work is below the tower, suggesting many sailors had no time to escape when the submarine went down.

''The accident happened so quickly we can say it was like a flash,'' said navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo.

U.S. submarines monitoring Russian navy exercises when the Kursk was lost detected two explosions at the time, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Russian navy refused to confirm this, but officers have said an explosion in the torpedo compartment at the front of the submarine apparently caused the Kursk to sink. A likely scenario was that one torpedo exploded, setting off a much bigger explosion in the compartment which is packed with torpedoes.

The Kursk can carry up to 28 torpedoes and anti-submarine missiles, each with warheads weighing up to 1,000 pounds. An explosion involving even a few torpedoes would have caused catastrophic damage, officers said.

The damage apparently included the submarine's internal escape capsule located in the conning tower, making it impossible to use, Dygalo said.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said authorities were still investigating the possibility of a collision.

After insisting for days that Western aid was not needed, the Russian government asked Britain and Norway to for help. Two Norwegian ships on Thursday were taking divers and the British mini-submarine to the rescue area.

The Russian turnabout apparently came after President Vladimir Putin spoke with President Clinton on Wednesday and ordered his Navy to seek help.

Russian officials refused to say Thursday why the British mini-sub was not flown to a Russian airfield closer to the rescue site. A Russian plane transported the mini-sub from Britain to Norway.

But British and Norwegian officials rejected suggestions that Russia was not eager for Western help. Britain's Defense Ministry said ''the Norway option provided the quickest and safest way of getting our equipment to the scene.''

The navy Thursday raised the number aboard the Kursk to 118 from 116 without explanation.

The rescue capsules are trying to latch onto one of the Kursk's hatches. The effort was being frustrated by the strong currents and almost zero visibility.

Four Russian rescue capsules were taking turns to try to reach the Kursk, each spending up to five hours submerged. The navy angrily denied Russian press reports that the rescue crews were failing because they were poorly trained.

Success of the rescue operation is dependent not only on latching on to a hatch but also on whether any survivors can open it from inside. Submarine hatches can only be opened from the inside to prevent intruders.

AP-NY-08-17-00 1154EDT< 

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), August 17, 2000

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