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Russian Submarine Accident: Anxiety High Among Murmansk Residents; British Armed Forces Minister Discusses Efforts to Aid in Rescue

Aired August 16, 2000 - 11:05 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: These are critical hours for crew members of that crippled Russian nuclear sub still at the bottom of the Barents Sea, four days now and counting. The Russians have asked Britain for help in the efforts to rescue more than 100 sailors on board.

CNN's Steve Harrigan by telephone now in Murmansk, which is on the northern edge of Russia.

Steve, hello.

STEVE HARRIGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Bill, good morning.

In this far-northern outreach, the port city of Murmansk, there is still hope; hope that some of the perhaps as many as 118 sailors still trapped 300 feet beneath the Barents Sea are still alive. But after now, with the rescue operation now in its fifth day showing no signs of success, but people here still hoping that all is not lost. We've seen them going to church today several times, lighting candles, praying together.

The level of anxiety here is enormously high. This is a very emotional roller coaster ride for the people of Murmansk. When we've been talking to people on the street, interviewing them about what they think, it's not hard for people to break into tears during their conversation when they think about the families involved, the people who are waiting now on the sidelines, waiting for news of their loved ones.

So far, the Russian government has kept those families away from the media, isolated them on board a nearby ship outside of Murmansk. So far, there is also a sense of resentment; resentment over the failure of a rescue operation now in its fifth day, and people here wondering about why aid from outside countries has been refused so long, and why now it's coming so late.

Still, though, a sense of hope mixed with that resentment. People here hoping that some of those 118 sailors will be brought back to the surface alive -- Bill.

Steve, is it discouraging at all to folks there who are getting the reports that no tapping has been heard on that sub? HARRIGAN: Certainly we've seem, really, a decline here over each day. Initially. there was radio contact with the submarine. No word about any loss of life. That then degenerated into kind of coded messages pounded out back and forth. As late as yesterday, sailors were pounding out an SOS. But today there has been no contact at all. That has been acknowledged by the Russian government. So, really, many hearts faltering as far as that goes.

One of the chief culprits for the problem, the Russians placing the blame on the weather. That water temperature is just about eight degrees, but there are very high winds, high enough to really endanger some of the rescuers. There are 22 military vessels out there trying to save these men, but the waves have been so high, they themselves have been in danger, and no sign of life from that submarine throughout day five of the rescue today -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Steve Harrigan again by telephone in Murmansk in northern Russian there.

And for late word now on possible British assistance in the Barents Sea, we go now to the Ministry of Defense in London where we're joined by Mr. John Spellar, minister of state for the armed forces.

Mr. Spellar, hello to you, and thank you for your time. And let's talk about this LR5 first of all. When could it be in the water and provide assistance?

JOHN SPELLAR, BRITISH ARMED FORCES MINISTER: Well, it's arrived in Norway now and the ship that could carry it round will be docking tonight. And obviously we'll be talking with the Russians about how soon we can get there, and obviously the details of how it will be operational there. But we took the decision once we got the ship lined up to actually get the equipment further into the area so that it was pre-positioned so that as soon as there were some positive indications, we could actually be involved there. So it's not just the equipment, it's also a remotely controlled vehicle as well, and also, obviously, the crew to man it and backup medical teams as well.

HEMMER: You seem to indicate that you took action before the Russians requested official help. Is that accurate?

SPELLAR: Well, no, we put -- we wanted to make sure that we had equipment available, as readily available and as nearly available, in the event that the Russians would actually require it. I mean, obviously they've got a lot of their own equipment, and as your report said, that they've been constrained by weather conditions. Had they been able to use that equipment to conduct a successful operation, obviously that would have been fine. But in the event that they required additional equipment for this operation, obviously we wanted to be in a position to be able to respond. And we stand ready to do that and our people are engaged in discussions with them.

HEMMER: Mr. Spellar, what do you say to folks who wonder why the Russians did not request this help sooner? SPELLAR: Well, I think that they've obviously got equipment for undertaking rescue from submarines. They've obviously conducted training exercises on this as well. And...

HEMMER: Yes, sir, I understand that. And I don't mean to interrupt, but it was apparent for the past few days that the Russian efforts had failed.

SPELLAR: Well, they've been trying with some pretty unfavorable weather to succeed in that. And, as you know, there was a briefing to NATO yesterday on their possible requirements. And so, therefore, there was a possibility that additional assistance may be required. That's why we've been getting stuff into position to be able to respond because we realize that time is very much of the essence. I don't think it's actually, you know, going to be too helpful at this stage to look at reasons why there's been any delay. What we've really got to do is get on as fast as possible in order to try and rescue these sailors in the submarine.

HEMMER: And, sir, the other issue we've heard throughout the week is compatibility between navies of different countries. The LR5, is it compatible with this Russian sub, to go down secure itself to the hatch, pressurize the water and hopefully remove those who have survived this ordeal?

SPELLAR: Well, our people have been looking at that and believe that that should be possible. Obviously, there's going to be more technical discussions taking place over the next few hours precisely to work out the final details between the experts. In the meantime, we want to make sure that once those are being resolved that we're not waiting for that, but that, in fact, we're getting the equipment as near as possible to the scene of operation to be able to respond as soon as that's required.

HEMMER: There's a Russian official who, today, is saying that there is oxygen on board that could last until the 25th of this month. That's another nine days from now. Do you believe, indeed, that there is enough oxygen to make it that far?

SPELLAR: Well, look, I'm not a technical expert and that's precisely why those discussions are taking place between the people who know this side of the business better...

HEMMER: All right, all right.

SPELLAR: ... so that they can give us the best advice. What we're doing is taking the necessary operational decisions to make sure that while those discussions are taking place that time is not being lost. And I'm very pleased that things are moving along now.

HEMMER: Well understood. Mr. John Spellar live from London, thanks for your time, sir. Much appreciate you taking time to talk with us today.

SPELLAR: Thank you.



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