The Associated Press
MURMANSK, Russia - A note found on the body of a sailor who died on a Russian nuclear submarine shows that 23 crewmen were still alive after explosions sank the vessel and describes their desperate plans to escape, military officials said yesterday.
"None of us can get to the surface," read the note found in the pocket of a seaman identified as Lt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, said Russian Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov.
It was the first sign that anyone had survived the initial blasts that tore apart the submarine and sank it in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 men aboard. And it again raised the question of whether there might have been any chance to save some of the crew if Russia had not balked for days at accepting foreign aid.
The note provided no clues to the cause of the catastrophe.
"All the crew from the sixth, seventh and eighth compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made this decision as a result of the accident," Kuroyedov quoted the note as saying, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The note was written between 1:34 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. local time Aug. 12, the day of the disaster, said Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of the Northern Fleet. Foreign and Russian ships in the area registered two powerful explosions around 11:30 a.m.
The note "also said that two or three people might try to escape the submarine through the emergency escape hatch located in the ninth compartment," Motsak said.
Water that gradually flooded the ninth compartment could have thwarted that escape attempt, he said. After the Kursk sank, Russian submersibles were unable to latch onto the hatch, but Norwegian divers who followed managed to open it a week after the tragedy and determined that there were no survivors.
Kolesnikov, a 27-year-old son of a submariner from St. Petersburg, was commander of the Kursk's turbine section, His was among the first four bodies retrieved Wednesday and the only seaman to have been identified so far, officials said.
"I am writing blindly," his note said, and mentioned the figures 13 and five, without explanation, Kuroyedov told families of the crew gathered in the Arctic port of Murmansk. The rest of the note was private, Motsak said.
"I'm preparing for a meeting with him," Kolesnikov's widow Olga, a schoolteacher, said between sobs in a brief Russian television interview from St. Petersburg. "I want to see him again, I want to read his letter."
The crewmen had some chance of getting out on their own through the escape hatch but apparently didn't do that because of injuries, Igor Spassky, head of the Rubin design bureau that developed the Kursk, said yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov quickly denied yesterday that there was any possibility they could be rescued.
Many Russian officials had said some crew members could have remained alive after the explosions, as indicated by reports of tapping sounds detected from the submarine in the first days.
But others discounted the reports as unsubstantiated and said the sounds could have been caused by collapsing equipment or the submarine settling into the seabed.
The survivors of the initial explosions, which were minutes apart, probably died of drowning, hypothermia or high pressure.
Russian and Norwegian divers recovered the first bodies Wednesday after five days of painstaking work to cut holes in the top of the submarine.
After the note was discovered, divers concentrated on the ninth compartment but were hampered by rough waters. Divers may cut a hole in that compartment to facilitate the search, Motsak said.
Officials hope to fly the recovered bodies Saturday to Severomorsk, the main base of the Northern Fleet, for a memorial ceremony if weather permits, he said.
Up to two-thirds of the crew were likely blown to bits by powerful explosions in the weapons room in the submarine's bow, officials said. The Kursk's nuclear reactors were automatically shut down, and there has been no radiation leak. The reactors were "behaving ideally," Spassky said yesterday.
Kuroyedov had warned that he might cancel the recovery effort if experts ruled that divers' lives were in danger.
But President Vladimir Putin promised to recover the bodies at an emotional meeting with the crew's relatives shortly after the disaster, and the government seemed bent on conducting the costly effort despite the shortage of funds for the military.
"We will do all we can," Putin said yesterday at a meeting with officials in the Kremlin.
Some Russian media have pointed out that by stubbornly conducting the risky effort, the government sought to redeem itself for the confused response to the sinking of the Kursk, when it resisted foreign help for days while botching its own rescue efforts.
The cause of the disaster remains unknown, with authorities suggesting a collision with a Western submarine or World War II-era mine or to an internal malfunction.