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Divers Find No Sign of Life on Sub

August 21, 2000

MOSCOW (AP) _ Norwegian divers on Monday forced open the escape hatch on a Russian nuclear submarine that sank nine days ago, but found no sign that any of the 118 crewmen were alive, a navy spokesman said.

The divers were seeing if they could penetrate further into the shattered hull of the submarine Kursk to check for any possible survivors, said navy spokesman Vladimir Navrotsky.

The breakthrough came after the Norwegian divers labored through the day Sunday to get the hatch open.

A British mini-submarine was on standby to descend to the Kursk lying 350 feet below the surface of the Barents Sea, but there was doubt it would be used because of flooding in the Russian vessel, British navy Commodore David Russell told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The Norwegian divers had looked into a chamber below the escape hatch, but had not gotten into the main body of the submarine, Navrotsky said.

The Russian navy said earlier there was almost no chance of finding survivors and it appeared that most of the Kursk was flooded after being shattered by a massive explosion when it sank Aug 12.

The first look of the inside of the escape chamber did not reveal any bodies, Navrotsky said. Russian officials said Sunday that there was at least one body trapped in the chamber.

The Russian navy said the Norwegian divers were looking at ways to open an internal hatch below the escape entrance. But Russian Adm. Vyacheslav Popov told Russia’s RTR television network that the inner chamber appeared to be flooded.

The rescue operation continued to be surrounded by conflicting reports from Russian and Western officials. The Russians had insisted for days that the escape hatch could not be opened, but the Norwegians had said they were confident of success and refused to give up.

Russian officials earlier had played down expectations over the capability of the British submarine, noting that its own mini-submarines had failed in days of anguished efforts to connect with the hatch.

``The British submarine is similar to ours, so we believe that it will be unable to dock either,″ Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said Sunday.

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.

New details emerged Sunday of how severely the Kursk was shattered when it sank during naval exercises on Aug. 12.

``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 officials said Sunday that the divers found indications that some air pockets may remain in the wreck.

RTR showed Russian and foreign naval experts aboard a control ship intently watching video monitors on which the divers could be seen moving slowly in a ghostly light around the hatch.

One diver grabbed a shattered fragment of the hull, about the size of a loaf of bread, and showed it to the camera.

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.

Klebanov said Sunday a Second World War mine or a collision with a foreign submarine were possible scenarios. 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 which he did not specify had not been answered.

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

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