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Russian Submarine Accident: Evidence Suggests Kursk Sustained Massive Damage; Navy Veteren Reflects on Fate of Crew

Aired August 17, 2000 - 2:01 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: A top Russian official has given the bleakest official assessment to date of the fate of the submarine Kursk. In a television statement issued today, Russia's prime minister called the situation "close to catastrophic." His appraisal fits with a growing body of evidence suggesting the Kursk suffered massive damage caused by explosions in a forward torpedo compartment. In the face of all this, Russian officials say the hope of finding survivors has not been exhausted.

CNN's Mike Hanna is in Moscow with the latest about that -- Mike.

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, for days, the Russians said that they'd be able to carry out the rescue by themselves. However, they have now finally called for outside assistance, and that will be in the form of a British rescue team bringing with them a mini sub, the LR5. This particular vessel apparently adept at working at depths of over 300 feet, which is where the Kursk is lying on the ocean floor.

The British team have moved their submarine aboard a Norwegian vessel earlier on in the course of this day and began their two-day journey across the ocean to the site where the Kursk went down. They'll be joined as well by 12 Norwegian divers. These are deep saturation divers, divers used to working at intense depths. The whole rescue party will arrive at site sometime on Saturday afternoon, join the Russian rescuers already in place there and commence the rescue operations, or continue the rescues operations, with a joint effort.

But as to the fate of the crew, well, nothing is known about the 118 people who were aboard the Kursk when it went down. The Russian Navy says there's been no communication with the members of the crew in recent days, and U.S. intelligence reports have suggested that there was no communication at all since the accident occurred on Saturday.

But the Russians say they will continue their efforts until all their hopes are exhausted. But at this point, nothing is known about conditions inside the submarine and nothing is known as to whether the crew are alive or dead -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Mike Hanna reporting from Moscow.

Well, many people are wondering what it must be like aboard the Kursk for any potential survivors.

CNN's Jill Dougherty found a Russian Navy veteran who offered some insight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): Reserve Captain Nikolai Cherkashin spent two years of his life under the sea aboard the submarines of Russia's northern fleet. He's had his share of close calls in the frigid waters of Russia's far north and so he feels a kind of kinship with the crew of the submarine Kursk.

NIKOLAI CHERKASHIN, SUBMARINE CAPTAIN (through translator): It's completely dark, it's cold, they're probably thirsty. They're probably lying down so they don't use too much oxygen. Are they praying? Writing final letters? We can only guess.

DOUGHERTY: Captain Cherkashin used to investigate submarine accidents. From what he's heard about this one, he believes it was a collision, maybe with a surface ship, maybe another submarine. Then perhaps an explosion. Whatever happened, he says, it happened very quickly.

CHERKASHIN (through translator): Literally within a minute or two, it sent the sub right to the bottom. The first and second compartments were flooded. The worst thing is the second section is where the escape capsule is located. If that hadn't been hit, they might have been able to escape.

DOUGHERTY: How many crew members might still survive trapped in the submarine? Captain Cherkashin doubts Russian Navy reports more than 100 may still be alive. He believes 15 at the most. And he remembers a sailor's prayer he saw in a church in England.

CHERKASHIN: Holy father, hear our prayer to you from our humble servants under the sea.

DOUGHERTY: "In the depths of the ocean where we are, so far from day, please give us patience so the darkness will not blind us. Out of the depths, we seek the light. Grant us a peaceful dream."

Jill Dougherty, CNN, Moscow.

ALLEN: For more information on the Kursk submarine and its position on the floor of the sea, visit our Web site, CNN.com.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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