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Friday, 18 August, 2000, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Submarine rescue expert answers your questions

As fears grow for the Russian sailors trapped in a nuclear submarine at the bottom of the Barents Sea, a specialist British sub has joined the rescue mission.

Commander Paddy Ryan, former head of the Royal Navy Submarine Escape and Rescue unit, answered your questions on the operation.

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Julie Polglaze, UK: What chance of success do the British rescue mission have when all attempts by the Russian forces have so far failed?

Commander Ryan: To the best of my knowledge, all the Russian attempts have been with diving bell-type rescue vehicles hanging down from a surface ship and these sort of things get swept away by the current. The autonomous LR5 can paddle against the current and will have more success because it doesn't have this 300-foot of cable above it, so I'm quite hopeful that it can do that.

Sam Barrows, USA: How much risk is there for the British submarine crew itself in this rescue mission?

The crew of the LR5 are so experienced

Commander Ryan
Commander Ryan: I think it's been practised so many times on submarines pretending to be sunk and on targets and the crew of the LR5 are so experienced, I don't think there's any risk to them at all.

Sian Lovett, UK: Are they able to open the hatch from the outside? Or do the rescuers need assistance from someone inside the sub?

Commander Ryan: Up to now the Russians haven't given us many details of how their submarines work but we think that there is an operating handle outside the hatch which means that the man from LR5 can go down inside the rescue skirt to operate the handle. The biggest problem is if there's a very big build-up of pressure within the Kursk herself, and that then has to be "bled" off somehow.

Tim Smith, UK: The LR5 has only three crew members, of which two are pilots. That leaves just one man to enter the Kursk. What if most, or even all, of the Russian sailors are unconscious or too weak to climb into the LR5?

Commander Ryan: Its normal operating crew is one pilot and one man in the rescue chamber but for the first mission down, they would probably take two pilots so that they can both get familiarised with the layout of the distressed submarine. In the back end of the submarine they would very likely take specialist doctors and "underwater" paramedics.

D. Lakey, USA: Is there not the worry that the air pressure in the stricken sub could blow the LR-5 away when the hatch opens and result in loss of rescue vehicle too?

Paddy Ryan: I think you've got to remember that LR5 is held onto the distressed submarine by sea pressure. My estimate of the "limpet-factor" on that LR5 is something in the order of 100 tonnes and therefore, you're going to need a very, very high pressure within the Kursk to blow it off.

Bruce Tabor, Australia: Reports talk about the gradual depletion of oxygen as limiting the crews' survival prospects. Whereas some have said that the build-up of carbon dioxide is in fact the limiting factor for the crews' survival. Which gas will first limit their chances of survival?

It's a matter of trying to keep yourself as placid and quiet as possible

Commander Ryan
Commander Ryan: That's really a chicken and egg problem. The carbon dioxide problem is exacerbated by pressure so the higher the pressure within the submarine the more dangerous that becomes. But I'd like to think the Russians, like all well-trained submariners, will have minimised such problems by slowing down their breathing rates so they consume less oxygen and exhale less carbon dioxide.

The problem here is they'll be getting cold and when the body is cold it is inclined to shiver to warm you up and when you shiver your heart rate and therefore your breathing rate increases and you use more air. It's a matter of trying to keep yourself as placid and quiet as possible.

Julian Sinton, UK: When entering or moving through a sunken submarine, how do you know whether or not the compartment on the other side of the hatch you are about to open is flooded?

Commander Ryan: I wouldn't see people descending into the Russian submarine and walking about too much to see what's going on, but all bulkheads in submarines I've been in have had a valve which you can open to test whether there is water or air on the other side, it's part of the design.

Iain Lowe, UK: Having worked on SSBN's (HMS Resolution & Revenge) I know what conditions are like at the best of times, surely if they've switched off the reactor, they'll be out of power and air by now, and there can't be anyone left alive?

Commander Ryan: One carries emergency supplies to run the oxygen generators and the carbon dioxide scrubbers, we do, but I don't know whether the Russians do because I've never been allowed aboard a Russian submarine.

Stuart Johnson, England: How long can the rescue sub stay under before coming back up, and when it does how long is it before it can go back down?

Commander Ryan: It depends on how much battery it uses, it's rather like an athlete - if you're working very hard you're going to have to refuel quite often, if you're having a pretty quiet time then you don't have to replenish your battery that frequently. I would like to hope he would get something like 12-14 hours out of his battery that should give him three or four rescue missions, times 16, we're talking about 50 people between a battery charge. It takes about eight hours to recharge the battery.

Gareth Lewis, Italy: Is there any indication that a radiation leak from the reactors or torpedos on the Russian sub has likely happened? If yes, does this endanger the RN crew?

The chance of getting any appreciable radiation inside is minimal

Commander Ryan
Commander Ryan: I don't think it will at all because stuck inside your submarine the chance of getting any appreciable radiation inside is minimal.

Neill Mooney, UK: The Kirsk lies at about 100m. I understand that underwater escapes using survival suits should be possible at this depth. Do you agree and if so what might have prevented the Russians from using this technique?

Commander Ryan: Certainly you can escape from all British submarines, we like to put the maximum depth at 180m. But you've got to have the submarine built to have that capability, I don't know whether the Russians have got that. Most of the other NATO submarines have, the Americans, having given it up are now just starting it up again. It depends on the design of the submarine, each nation has its own way of doing things, I don't think they have escape suits which would explains why they haven't tried it.

Alan Paterson, Scotland: Do you think that if the Soviet's hadn't dragged their heels you could have saved them by now? Alan Paterson, Scotland

The one commodity you'll never have enough of is time

Commander Paddy Ryan
Commander Ryan: I'm not sure I'm in a position to comment but the one commodity you'll never have enough of is time. Obviously the earlier they'd told people the earlier we could have got there, why they didn't is a Russian decision, we went as soon as we were asked, in fact I think we went before we were asked.

Elliot Renton, UK: Why does it take so long to get the rescue equipment from the UK to the site? Couldn't we have flown the sub in?

Commander Ryan: It was flown to southern Norway and the speed at which it arrived in Trondheim was really very remarkable. You're flying something like 70 tonnes of equipment that doesn't just go in the hold of a British plane, you've got to have a special aircraft. A special ship had to be found and chartered, but it was still some 900 miles from the site. You also need a little bit of time for the crew, they can't work 12 hours flat out and then spend 24 hours under water because tired people are dangerous people.

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17 Aug 00 | Europe
Stricken sub 'severely damaged'
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