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Arctic City Ponders Fate of Sub

August 17, 2000

MURMANSK, Russia (AP) _ Rumors about the sailors trapped in a crippled Russian submarine on the sea floor circulate constantly in the offices, shops and homes of this Arctic port that glories in its ties to the navy.

With little reliable information, people lurch between hope and despair as they trade thirdhand reports. In a city full of active navy personnel and veterans, the mood is tinged by knowledge of how merciless the sea can be.

``What is happening now is such a tragedy that I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy,″ said Viktor Duben, a 30-year veteran of the submarine service.

There was no news Thursday about the 118 men trapped since Saturday at the bottom of the Barents Sea aboard the Kursk, one of the newest and most powerful nuclear submarines in the Russian navy. The Kursk belongs to the Northern Fleet, which is headquartered in the Murmansk region.

``Only a small group of people really knows what’s going on,″ said Valery Chushenkov, a retired submarine captain who is director of a naval history museum. ``And the rest of us _ we just listen to the news all day.″

Relatives of those aboard the Kursk complain that even the hot line the navy set up for the crisis is useless.

``We’ve been calling the hot line ... every day, and they are telling us they have no information. They say ’Go to Murmansk and ask journalists,‴ said Ludmila Milyutina of St. Petersburg. Milyutina, whose son Andrei is on the Kursk, came to Mumansk on Thursday.

Murmansk stretches for 11 miles along the Kola Bay, with navy bases dotting the area. The gray concrete apartment blocks on the hills are home to many who served in the navy or have friends or relatives who still serve.

With the brief Arctic summer giving way to the first damp, chill stirrings of winter, many people’s minds are on the cold inside the Kursk, which probably has not had heat or light since it sank.

``It’s like this kind of weather, only it’s dark,″ said Duben, the retired submariner. He huddled in his padded jacket, pulling his wool cap down over his ears, as he stood in a light drizzle.

Submarine crews usually have warm clothes stored for emergencies, but crew members may not have had time to fetch them. The navy said some sections of the Kursk are flooded.

``They are cold now, and have no lights,″ said Vyacheslav Olnev, a factory worker who also served on a submarine.

``I watched the news five or six times yesterday, worrying all the time,″ he said. ``I hope they are still alive.″

Duben said he spends most of his time trying to figure out what could have gone wrong when the Kursk plunged to the bottom during naval exercises. The navy said probes revealed massive damage to the front of the vessel.

``We know nothing about what happened with the submarine. But it was something terrible,″ Duben said.

Murmansk’s St. Nicholas church has held special services to pray for the crew. Worshippers light candles in front of icons.

``I pray every day, morning and night, for their rescue,″ said Vladimir Dolinin, a 45-year-old bus driver.

The local branch of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, which works for servicemen’s rights, extended its hours to serve relatives of the Kursk’s crew.

Like other people here, Valentina Fomina of the mother’s committee criticized the Russian government for delaying requests for foreign help. On Wednesday, four days after the accident, the Russian government asked Britain and Norway to send a mini-submarine and drivers.

``It hurts that the military was wasting time by rejecting foreign assistance,″ she said. ``It’s frightening that, even knowing they could not save the people themselves, they were refusing help.″

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