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Russian Submarine Accident: Author Peter Maas Discusses 'The Terrible Hours'

Aired August 15, 2000 - 1:20 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Russian navy says it has lowered a submersible vessel into the Barents Sea as part of a rescue attempt. More than 100 Russian sailors are trapped aboard the disabled Kursk nuclear submarine, 350 feet below the surface.

For some older Americans, the effort is reminiscent of a rescue operation that took place more than 60 years ago. Peter Maas is the author of "The Terrible Hours," a book about the 1939 sinking of the Squalus off the coast of New Hampshire. He joins us from New York.

Thanks for being with us.

PETER MAAS, AUTHOR, "THE TERRIBLE HOURS": Great being with you, Natalie. I've got to tell you that every morning, after I finish writing and I am having lunch at home, I watch you and Lou to catch up on what's going on. So it is wonderful to actually talk to you.

ALLEN: Well, we are thrilled to have you with us today because what a compelling story and a time in history that you wrote about. At the time the Squalus went down, no one thought there was anyway to rescue anyone aboard a submarine until one man came along. If you can, give us a snapshot of how this came about, this rescue.

MAAS: That's exactly correct. At the time the Squalus went down. it was a given that if a sub went down, the crew was doomed. It was the advent of the hero of my book, "Swede" Momsen, a young Navy officer and a submariner himself, who found this unacceptable, and began working at pioneering various escape and rescue devices to help a downed submariner.

The Squalus was our newest submarine. It was the eve of World War II. It went down, it plummeted on the North Atlantic floor, 243 feet down. There were 59 men on board, 33 still survived, and their fate rested with this one man, "Swede" Momsen, who, among his inventions, was diving bell or rescue chamber that could be lowered to a sunken submarine, and the crew inside, if they were still alive, could exit the submarine into this rescue chamber, and then be raised to the surface.

He pulled it off. It was the perils of Pauline. Every moment something else went wrong. But in the end successful.

ALLEN: Well, the name of your book, "The Terrible Hours," kind of speaks about what these men went through while they were in that submarine. Here's an exert from your book from one who survived, "Never will I forget how we sat there crouched in the dark. We just didn't know what the next minute would bring. We were afraid to use our flashlight because we might need it later on. We were afraid to use oxygen because it might save our lives later on. We were afraid to talk about too much what was happen because that might make us jittery."

That is well spoken there. Did these men down there in the Squalus have any idea that a rescue might be under way? did they have any way to communicate?

MAAS: Well, they were communicating, just as the Russians are doing now, so I understand, by hammering on the hull of the submarine. But an oscillator on the surface did deliver a message that "Swede" Momsen had arrived and that the rescue chamber was on its way.

They knew who he was. He had invented also an escape lung, called the Momsen Lung. They knew who he was. They revered him. They knew he cared about submarines more than anything, and submariners more than anything.

And the first message sent to them was that he was on the scene. And, as one of the crew survivors told me, somebody else said, we're going to make it. The man is here.

ALLEN: That's great. And now we have these Russians in this nuclear submarine about to be rescued.

MAAS: We hope.

ALLEN: Right via submersible machinery, what -- how different is this rescue today than what he had so many decades ago? and what are the risks involved with the technology they have today?

MAAS: Well, his chamber, by today's standards I suppose, would be considered somewhat primitive. The U.S. Navy, after his pioneering efforts, developed two very sophisticated deep sea rescue vehicles that can go down several thousand feet under their own power. It is very unclear just what the Russians have. They've been so secretive.

It's unknown exactly what their rescue capability is. The last I've heard is that they were lowering some kind of a diving bell down to the -- to the sunken Russian submarine.

But, you know, unlike the Squalus, which was coverer by hundreds of news men, the media were on the scene, you knew exactly what was going on, and here we've just been giving dribs and drabs, whatever the Russian government decides to let us know about.

I hope it works. We had offered, when we developed after Momsen's effort, our new rescue devices, we suggested that the Russians construct their submarines with hatches that could seal to our rescue vessels. And apparently they didn't. If they have their own, I hope they work. ALLEN: Well, if it worked so many decades ago, 60 years ago, we hope it works this afternoon, when the Russians begin their effort. Peter Maas, author of "The Terrible Hours," thanks so much for joining us.

MAAS: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

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