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CNN Today

Plight Worsens for Russian Seamen; USS Squalas Survivor Tells His Tale

Aired August 15, 2000 - 2:31 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: Our top story: the worsening plight of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk and its crew of 116. The Russian navy is battling angry weather in the Barents Sea, with no reported success so far in this very difficult rescue effort. At last word, the Russians are pinning their hopes on what's being called a submersible that's being lowered from a ship.

Within the last hour, CNN has learned the Russians have asked NATO about its submarine rescue capabilities without making a formal request for any such assistance. The Russians now say the Kursk was damaged by a catastrophic explosion. And Pentagon sources tell CNN the disaster may have occurred as early as Saturday.

CNN has sent our Walter Rodgers in northern Norway to learn what he can about the rescue. He can talk with us more about the weather there as well -- Walt.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Natalie.

It has proved a frustrating afternoon and evening for the Russians, as they did indeed put a submersible vehicle into the water, into the Barents Sea and tried to lower it down to the hull of the submarine Kursk on the floor about 100 meters or so down in the water.

The problem of course is that the submersible to attack to the escape hatch of the submarine has to approach it from a 90 degree angle, perpendicular, straight down. The difficulty of course is that the Kursk itself is lying at a 60-degree angle. And so far, it has proved impossible to match and marry the submersible with the hull of that crippled submarine. So, the first effort has apparently failed. The one bit of good news is that the Russians have had some good weather.

The storms which plagued them last night have abated somewhat. The weather is much improved and there is said to be another window for 20 or more hours in which the Russians can continue these efforts to try to retrieve the men of the Kursk from that crippled submarine on the bottom of the Barents Sea. This is above the Arctic Circle. It is the most inhospitable of conditions to work in.

Nonetheless, everyone seems to be pursuing it with as much vigor as they can -- the reason being that they don't have a lot of time because of the limited aboard the submarine -- Natalie. ALLEN: Walter Rodgers, live from Norway. Thank you. There are few people who know first hand of what that crew aboard that Russian sub is facing. One U.S. man who lived through a similar dark ordeal at the bottom of the ocean is Gerald McLees.

Reporter Kate Amara of CNN affiliate WMUR has the story of how McLees and 32 other crewmen survived .

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GERALD MCLEES, SERVED ABOARD USS SQUALAS: We lost 52 submarines during the war. And a lot of sailors went down with those.

KATE AMARA, WMUR REPORTER (voice-over): Twenty-six sailors died on Gerald McLees' Navy sub. He was an electrician mate on the USS Squalas in 1939. And he was on board the morning of May 23rd when the sub began a test dive.

MCLEES: We were supposed to get down there in so many seconds in order to satisfy the Navy. And about that time, they got word the boat was flooding.

AMARA: It was a failure of the main induction valve on board the brand new boat. It happened 13 miles southeast of here off the Isle of Shoals. The crippled sub was 240 feet down: no electricity, no lights, no heat. All the crewmen could do was wait for help.

MCLEES: Then after a little while, we laid in some of the bunks there and covered up and slept.

AMARA: They spent a day and a half at the bottom. McLees says there was not time to be scared. And he says he knew they would be rescued; 33 men were. And a half a century later, the six remaining survivors still meet every year. At this year's gathering, the men will likely talk about the Russian submariners who now share the experience of being trapped on the ocean floor.

MCLEES: Boy, they would -- I would think they would probably be a little bit worried down there.

AMARA: McLees knows from experience that for some the crew to survive, disabled sections of the sub must be sealed off and some men will die to save their comrades.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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