Originally created 08/17/00

Sub rescue concerns area sailors



For any sailors remaining alive on board, the Russian submarine Kursk is seeming more like a tomb with each passing moment, some former submariners said Wednesday.

The ship likely has no electrical power left, meaning the sailors must suffer through total darkness, in temperatures as low as 30 degrees. The ship, upright during its voyage, now lists on the ocean floor, further disorienting its crew.

And with each breath, those surviving among the submarine's crew of 116 use a little more of the precious oxygen left inside the crippled vessel.

"It's really hard to watch this thing play out and realize what it must be like down in that cold, dark, fetid atmosphere," said Aiken resident Austin Scott, a retired rear admiral who once commanded the submarines of the Navy's Pacific fleet. "It's every submariner's nightmare to have a situation like that.

"Those poor people. Whoever is left from the incident that caused them to sink, they're down there now in the dark and cold. Those are my brothers under the skin. I'm really sincerely concerned about their ability to get out."

An accident crippled the Kursk, one of Russia's most modern nuclear submarines, Saturday, sending the vessel to rest 350 feet below the surface of the Barents Sea. Although rescue attempts are under way, even Russian officials have stated that the situation for the crew is grave. Any available air on the sub is expected to be exhausted by Friday.

Bad weather, strong ocean currents, and the ship's listing posture likely are complicating rescue efforts, said Cole Lindell, a retired Navy captain and career submariner who also lives in Aiken.

Although ships above have lowered a diving "bell" - a small, submersible vessel tethered to a surface ship by a harness - to the Kursk, currents make it difficult to lower the bell directly to the submarine, Mr. Lindell said.

The submarine's lean also might make it impossible to form a watertight seal between a rescue vessel and the wreck's hatch, Mr. Lindell said.

"Anything you lower from the surface is going to want to land flat," he said. "It is very difficult to try to get it to mate at that angle."

The Navy has mini-subs, called deep submergence rescue vessels, that can link to a crippled sub and evacuate the crew, Mr. Scott said. The United States provided the specifications of the rescue vessels to other nations so that they could build their subs with the capability to link to the U.S. rescue subs, he said.

But some nations did not take advantage of the opportunity, said Mr. Scott, who said he believes that Russia probably once had deep-rescue units of its own. Those vessels likely have fallen into disuse and disrepair during Russia's lengthy financial crisis, Mr. Scott said.

"It is a matter of fact that the Russians have not funded their Navy, or other armed forces, for a very long time," he said.

Mr. Scott said he has many questions about what caused the accident and about what happened during its aftermath, given the scant information available. Russian officials did not announce the accident until Sunday, well after it occurred, and since have floated several theories about why the Kursk went down, ranging from a collision with an unknown object to an explosion caused by an undetected World War II-era mine.

"I can't understand why the reactors would shut down," Mr. Scott said. "There's not a direct connection with something like that. It's troublesome that the reactors would shut down, or that they would shut the reactors down. I don't understand why they couldn't talk on an underwater telephone. The source of the explosion is curious."

Despite the accident, submarines will remain an indispensable part of the modern navy, Mr. Lindell said.

"It took one submarine to stop Argentina in the Falklands," he said, referring to the 1982 conflict between the South American country and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. "Just knowing that one sub was out there tied up the entire Argentinean fleet.

"It's an invisible, almost invincible threat. The chance of hitting one is almost zero, and the firepower is practically unstoppable."