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Russian Submarine Accident: Rescuers Attempt to Attach Submersible Sphere to Stricken Vessel; Norway Monitors Seas for Radioactivity

Aired August 15, 2000 - 11:06 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Efforts now under way by the Russian Navy to try and evacuate 116 crew members of a Russian nuclear sub trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

More now from Moscow. Mike Hanna tracking this from the Russian capital.

Mike, what do we know now?

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, we've just learned that the first and critical stage in the rescue operation is under way. A spokesman for the Russian Navy, Igor Digalo, has told CNN that, at this very moment, that is at 7:00 Russian time, the attempt is being made to attach a submersible sphere to the stricken vessel.

The difficulty here is that the submarine is reportedly lying at an angle of some 60 degrees so the submersible has to be lowered and then slid across the hull to connect to the escape hatch. Once it's connected to the escape hatch, then the pressures between the two vessels will be equalized and the crew members will be able to get into the sphere to be taken up to the surface.

The chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, says the operation could take between six to eight hours to complete given the favorable weather conditions. And certainly these weather conditions are a very important factor. There has been a slight lull in the storm that has been raging in the Barents Sea over the past day, and this has allowed this rescue operation, these rescue attempts, to get under way, Bill.

HEMMER: Mike, we're going to try and establish contact shortly here with Walter Rodgers who is closer to the scene on the northern coast of Norway. But curious about this report we picked up this morning about a torpedo that may have exploded on board. Is there any new information about that, whether or not the torpedo was engaged or whether it was just sitting there inside the sub itself?

HANNA: There are no further details apart from that report that the damage to the submarine was caused by a torpedo exploding in the bow of the boat. What does appear clear is that the -- it was one of the submarines own torpedoes. Whether it was a detonation in the torpedo room itself or whether an attempt was made to fire the torpedo, none of this is clear. All the Navy will say at this particular point is that a full investigation is under way, and this investigation is likely to take a long time, Bill.

HEMMER: Mike, also, have they addressed the issue of clarity under water there. I know the seas can be quite rough. But have they talked about the Russian Navy and how well they can actually see the sub?

HANNA: Well, yes, they have made clear that they have had submersible vessels taking a look at the submarine, at the angle that it is lying. Clearly, the visibility at that depth has been good enough for them to establish, obviously, exactly where the submarine is. And from that point of view, they do appear to have the necessary equipment. The chief of the Navy, incidentally, has said that the equipment is not the problem. He says the Russian Navy has all it needs to conduct the rescue operation. But he says the major problem remains that of the weather, Bill.

HEMMER: All right, great. Mike Hanna in Moscow. Thanks for hanging in there, Mike.

Now to Walter Rodgers who, again, is off the northern coast of Norway, near the boarder with Finland, and now joins us live with an update from there.

Walter, hello. How's the weather, first and foremost?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, you have only to look behind me and see the gray clouds glowering over the fjord, the Beringer Fjord (ph), here in Kirkenes, Norway. We're only about 15 miles from the border with Russia at this point.

And beyond that, beyond the fjord you see behind me, about 12 miles out to sea, this of course the Barents Sea where that crippled Russian submarine, the Kursk, lies on the Barents Sea floor about 100 yards or so, maybe 150 yards on the ocean floor. There's a good wind even in the shelter of the fjord here in Kirkenes, Norway, so you can imagine out at sea.

It's still rolling even though there has been some abating of the rough weather earlier in the day. It must be terribly cold for the men aboard that submarine. The surface temperatures in this part of the world, remembering that we abut against the Arctic, the surface temperature are only about 40 to 45 degrees in the ocean. Down below, of course, on the sea of -- on the floor of the sea, the surface -- the temperatures where the men are in that submarine with no heat, with a nuclear reactor shut down, it is probably just a few degrees below -- above freezing, and those men have to be huddled with whatever warmth they can muster trying to keep their hopes up as well as their body temperatures up -- Bill.

HEMMER: Walter, we have heard reports that British support has been offered, U.S. support has been offered. Likewise, for the Norwegians. Have the Norwegians been able to assist at all to this point with what's happening below the surface? RODGERS: No, to the best of my understanding, the Russians have turned down these offers of international assistance, international aid. The Norwegians, of course, are watching this extremely closely. They have ships at sea -- that is naval ships -- monitoring the area of the seas here trying to check to see if radioactivity is swinging from the easterly current because the Norwegians have had a terrible experience with Russian nuclear submarine mishaps in the past. Bologna (ph), the Norwegian environmental watch group, reports that there are over 90 Cold War-era submarines just a few miles east of here on the Kola Peninsula rusting with some nuclear waste seeping into the ocean around Norway, and of course that's terribly troublesome for the Norwegians who are especially environmentally conscious -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Walter Rodgers live there in northern Norway by way of videophone. Excellent technology to bring that live picture from there.

Walter, thanks. We will check back in shortly.



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