Kursk Letter Opens Old Wounds

Oct. 27, 2000 -- A wave of grief and anger against the government for its slow and confused response to the Kursk accident has spread through Russia following the recovery of a desperate letter from one of the crew members.

The letter, found on the body of 27-year-old Lt. Dmitry R. Kolesnikov showed that at least 23 people survived the powerful explosions that killed most of the crew of the Russian nuclear submarine on Aug, 12 — and sunk the vessel, sealing the fate of the rest.

“The Kursk crew has been buried alive,” Veronika Marchenko, the head of the anti-military Mother’s Right association, said in a statement issued today. “The government was trying to solve all possible problems, such as concealing the tragedy, protecting military secrets, raising the plummeting popularity of the president, paying off too persistent relatives or hushing up honest journalists. All except one: acting quickly to save the crew.”

“We should think what to do to make the government value citizens’ lives more than oil, military secrets or its own prestige.”

The outpourings came as stormy seas prevented divers from entering the Kursk today, days after Russian divers recovered four bodies from the Kursk’s eighth and ninth compartments. The letter was discovered Thursday.

Winds of up to 56 miles per hour and a force six gale in the Barents Sea kept divers away from the wreck today because of the danger of being jerked about on their tethers, said Northern Fleet spokesman Capt. Vladimir Navrotsky.

“The weather is worsening, with a snowstorm raging around the rescue site,” he said, adding that the storm was expected to continue throughout the day.

Horrifying Story, Grisly Indictment

The recovery of the letter was the first firm indication that some of the sailors had remained alive for at least several hours after the powerful explosions that sank the submarine.

Fragments from Kolesnikov’s message told a horrifying story of the submariners’ struggle for life, saying that 23 survivors of the blasts had gathered in a compartment in the stern, hoping to get out through the escape hatch.

But there was no escape.

Most of the Kursk’s crew of 118 apparently died instantly in the explosions that sent a giant fireball and shock wave ripping through the Kursk’s first five compartments, or within minutes as water roared into the submarine.

Russian officials believe the note was written at least two hours after the sub began to sink.

“I am writing blind,” he wrote. “It’s 13:15. All personnel from sections six, seven and eight have moved to section nine. There are 23 people here. We have made the decision because none of us can escape.”

But the sickening revelation that some died a slow and torturous death—by drowning, hypothermia or suffocation — has brought back the horror that gripped the nation in the days after the disaster.

“It’s horribly painful, it’s awful,” said a sobbing Olga Kolesnikov, the widow of Lt. Kolesnikov. “I had a feeling that he didn’t die immediately, and it turned out my feeling was right.”

And once again, it called into question whether the government could save some of the crew if it hadn’t balked at accepting foreign aid for days.

It has also turned into the most grisly and poignant indictment of President Vladimir Putin, who vacationed through the earliest days of the drama and reportedly rejected the first offers of international help in reaching the vessel.

Trapped in the 9th Compartment

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 there were no survivors.

Kuroyedov said divers’ operations in the seventh and eighth compartments had been stopped and the divers were concentrating their search on the ninth compartment. The letter contains important details about the accident that sank the Kursk — and the drama that captured the attention of the world, Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of Russia’s Northern Fleet, said later during a TV interview.

Motsak also said the note proved sailors were trying to make their way out. According to Kolesnikov’s note, two or three tried to get out through the escape hatch.

“As we know, that attempt failed, maybe because it was filled with water,” he said in the port of Severomorsk.

Powerful Blasts

Foreign and Russian ships in the area and seismologists around the world registered two powerful explosions in the Barents Sea around 11:30 p.m. local time on Aug. 12.

The cause of the disaster remains unknown, with authorities pointing at a collision with a Western submarine, World War II-era mine or an internal malfunction as possible reasons. But the note contained no new evidence about what sank the Kursk, whether it was an internal explosion or a collision.

Initial sonar reports said tapping heard on the hull of the vessel suggested that at least some sailors were alive. But the tapping faded and disappeared in the days following the crippling explosion. Others discounted the reports as unsubstantiated and said the sounds could have been caused by collapsing equipment or the submarine settling into the seabed.

Russian officials say up to two-thirds of the crew were killed by powerful explosions in the weapons room in the submarine’s bow. The survivors of the initial explosions probably died of drowning, hypothermia or high pressure.

Dangerous Recovery Operation

Russian and Norwegian divers recovered the first four bodies after five days of painstaking work to cut holes in the top of the submarine.

The complex underwater operation is being performed with leading-edge diving equipment, including robots and mechanical arms. Divers have used an instrument that sprays pressurized water mixed with diamond dust to cut the Kursk’s 2-inch thick inner steel hull.

Kuroyedov had warned that he might cancel the recovery effort if experts ruled that divers’ lives were in danger. Two widows of the Kursk crew members visited the Regalia on Wednesday and, on behalf of all the families, pleaded with the divers not to take excessive risks.

But President 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.

Some Russian media have pointed out that by stubbornly conducting the risky effort the government wants to vindicate its confused response to the sinking of the Kursk, when it resisted foreign help for days while botching its own rescue efforts.

ABCNEWS’ Bob Woodruff, Adaora Udoji and Linda Albin in London, and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.