Soaked letter tells last hours of `Kursk' crew

 

In pitch-black darkness, some time after the explosions which sent the Kursk to the bottom of the ocean, Lieut Capt Dmitri Kolesnikov realised he was not going to survive.

As he waited to die, he wrote a careful account of what had happened on board the submarine, apparently for the benefit of naval officials. Then he turned over the piece of paper and on the other side composed a goodbye letter to his wife, Olga - feeling his way to trace the words in the dark.

This letter, barely legible and soaked with sea water, was found yesterday in one of his uniform pockets, shortly after his corpse was dragged out of the nuclear submarine's ravaged hull.

Most of the information on both sides of the paper was deemed too personal - and possibly too politically sensitive - for public consumption. But the few lines which were released give a grim new insight into how the 118 men on board the Kursk died, confirming the worst fears of the relatives that some sailors did survive the initial explosions and were trapped for hours, if not days, inside the submarine.

Until yesterday Russian officials had propagated the theory that all the sailors had died in the minutes after the accident. But Kolesnikov's letter reveals that at least 23 men remained alive, some of them making desperate and hopeless attempts to escape.

The news raised the highly contentious question of whether lives might have been saved had Russia not initially refused offers of foreign help in the rescue operation.

These men, all in the five rear compartments of the submarine, broke strict protocol and abandoned their posts after disaster struck. They must already have realised that their colleagues at the front of the submarine had perished in the blast which ripped through the vessel's first three sections on the morning of August 12th.

Hoping to save themselves they took the usually-forbidden move of passing from one section to the next, gathering in the ninth, at the stern of the submarine, where the only rear escape hatch was.

In a passage from the note recounted by a naval spokesman, Lieut Capt Kolesnikov (27) reveals that two or three men were planning to make an escape attempt through this hatch. When this failed, the men realised they could do nothing but prepare for death.

As the most senior officer in the seventh section - commander of the turbine engine room - Kolesnikov took it upon himself to justify the actions of his men.

The glowing hands of his luminous wristwatch, a tiny spot of light in the submarine's blackened interior, allowed him to note the precise time of composition. The chief-of-staff of the Northern Fleet, Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak, said that the note was written between 1.34 p.m. and 3.15 p.m. on the day of the disaster. Foreign and Russian ships in the area registered two powerful explosions from the accident site at around 11.30 a.m.

"All personnel from sections six, seven and eight have moved to section nine. There are 23 of us here. We have made this decision because none of us can escape," the note states.

Then Kolesnikov's handwriting becomes illegible, apart from the figures 13 and 5, followed by the words "I am writing blind", an apparent reference to the darkness which followed power failure within the submarine.

It was not clear why the men were unable to put on diving gear and leave through the escape hatch. Some experts have suggested that the hatch might have been damaged in the blast. Mr Igor Spassky, the head of the Rubin design bureau which built the Kursk, said that they should have been able to get out this way, but may have been hampered by injuries.

Nor was it clear when or how the survivors finally died. Water may have flooded in during the abortive escape attempt, killing those sailors who had gathered in that section; alternatively they may have died from hypothermia or high pressure.

Four corpses were found on Wednesday, hours after a Russian military diver began the highly dangerous search inside the submarine. All four have been taken to a mobile forensic unit at the naval base of Severomorsk, but Kolesnikov is the only sailor to have been named so far.

The son of a submariner, he is due to be buried in St Petersburg next Wednesday. In a brief television interview, his wife, Olga, was so crippled by grief that she could hardly stand.

"I had a feeling that he was alive and I felt a pain. Now that I see that there was a reason for this pain," she said.

Attempts to recover new bodies were postponed yesterday, because stormy weather made the operation too dangerous.

As a result of the information within Kolesnikov's note, further attempts will focus on the ninth compartment, where most of the 27 men are thought to have died.

Officials gave no indication of whether Kolesnikov's note went into detail about how the Kursk went down. The government has yet to give an official explanation for the disaster, although senior naval officials continue to favour the theory that the accident was caused by a collision with a foreign submarine over the possibility that a second World War mine or an internal malfunction caused the blast.

But the limited information released proved in itself extremely controversial, highlighting new contradictions in the officials statements about the accident. Earlier this month the Deputy Prime Minister and head of the commission investigating the disaster, Mr Ilya Klebanov, said initial investigations indicated that almost all the sailors would have died before the vessel even hit the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Kolesnikov's testimony gives new credence to the navy's original reports that sailors could be heard knocking "SOS, water" distress signals for three days after the disaster. In the aftermath of the crisis, as the government sought to explain its failure to mount a rapid rescue operation, officials said they had been mistaken and the noises were probably just rumblings of collapsing machinery and water flooding into the hull.