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Friday, 27 October, 2000, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Kursk mystery endures
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov's record of his last desperate hours aboard the stricken Kursk nuclear submarine provide valuable insight into immediate aftermath of the disaster.

His note seems to confirm that two huge explosions shattered the forward sections of the submarine, and that most of the crew died immediately.

It also confirms that the disaster happened on a Saturday - two days before the Russian authorities officially admitted the Kursk was lost.

But while Lt Kolesnikov's chilling account provides some answers, reading between his lines only reinforces how much remains unknown.

Lieutenant Dmitry Kolesnikov
Lieutenant Kolesnikov: "None of us can get to the surface"
Lt Kolesnikov writes how following "the accident" he and 22 crewmates were forced into the last compartment at the stern of the boat.

From what details officials have released, his letter begins legibly enough, but ends with the scrawled words: "I am writing blindly."

This, investigators believe, was when the Kursk's emergency lights failed, plunging the frightened survivors into freezing darkness.

The note sheds no light on whether any attempt was made to close watertight doors linking each of the Kursk's compartments.

It is not known how quickly the Kursk became flooded, but with a serious fire raging and a power failure there must be some doubt about whether the hatches could have been closed.

Escape attempts

The one hope for Lt Kolesnikov and his crewmates must have been the ninth compartment's escape hatch but we do not know if they even tried to open it.

Russian newspapers.
The Russian media fiercely criticised the Navy's handling of the disaster
The words "none of us can get to the surface" suggest that any attempts to do so ended in failure.

Lt Kolesnikov's note is also interesting in that it supports Russia's initial claims that it had detected tapping coming from the Kursk, and was attempting to mount a rescue.

But as the hours dragged by, it became clear the navy lacked the resources to reach the crew, and seemed reluctant to accept outside assistance of any kind.

Officials drew fierce criticism from the press and relatives of the crew over its handling of the disaster, with accusations that it was sacrificing the men for the sake of Russian pride.

But even if rescuers had reached the Kursk within hours instead of days, it is uncertain if Lt Kolesnikov and his crewmates would have still been alive.

100 desperate minutes

The note suggests the men survived for at least 100 minutes in the cramped rear section, but we do not know how long the survivors remained alive after Lt Kolesnikov stopped writing.

Russian rescue sub
Russian attempts to reach the Kursk ended in failure
When the Kursk sank, the navy optimistically stated that there might be enough oxygen on board to sustain survivors for two weeks.

But injured men, trapped in a cramped and smouldering submarine lying crippled more than 300ft beneath the Barents Sea could just have easily succumbed to hypothermia.

Investigators now plan to concentrate their exploration of the Kursk on the ninth compartment and are hopeful of finding more notes or clues as to the causes of the disaster.

The Kursk submarine accident

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See also:

27 Oct 00 | Media reports
26 Oct 00 | Europe
21 Oct 00 | Europe
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