Change Your Life!
Are they going to die?
August 18, 2000
UNDATED (AP) - It's as dark as the inside of a blindfold. Your breathing slips into shallow panting as precious oxygen ebbs. It's so cold that the sweat and tears of your terrified shipmates turns to slick frost on bare metal.
After five days sitting 354 feet (108 meters) below the churning Barents Sea, the crippled Russian submarine Kursk rapidly is becoming a steel coffin for its crew of 118, if they haven't already perished, veteran submariners say.
The deep is unforgiving. That's what submariners - some of whom have survived accidents dating back to World War II - know as they await the fate of the Russians sailors.
"It must be terrifically damp, dark and cold," said Steve Collier of Bath, Ohio, a retired U.S. Navy master chief petty officer who served on three submarines from 1973-93.
The Kursk is lying awkwardly on its side in strong currents and swirling muck, frustrating repeated rescue efforts.
Russian officials say the bow probably was damaged by an explosion, perhaps in a torpedo bay. Several compartments flooded with sea water, sending the sub to the bottom.
Veterans submariners say the sailors in the Kursk's bow almost certainly are dead. Survivors are more likely to have been stationed in the rear of the vessel. Watertight bulkheads probably have split the crew into small groups, adding to their sense of vulnerability.
"Every submariner knows that tomorrow it could happen to him," said retired Russian Capt. Valerei Zelichonok, who commanded submarines before moving to Israel in 1990.
It's near total darkness down there. Russian officials say the sub's nuclear reactors were turned off or failed after the accident. The sub's large batteries would be drained within two or three days. Electric lanterns and flashlights probably have dimmed, too.
It's cold. The surrounding water temperature is well below freezing. Residual heat in the sub's pipes has long since dissipated, making it little more than a metal can in an icy bath.
Sailors might be wrapped in blankets. But in the mechanical areas to the rear of the sub, they probably have no extra clothing.
Humidity, even from the men's breathing, turns to ice on exposed metal.
And it's suffocating. The Russian sub may have an oxygen-making system, but that would rely on electricity, too. Oxygen tanks may have been damaged in the wreck and they're probably depleting now.
Claustrophobia haunts every submariner. Even under normal conditions, the slightest change in air quality sends a ripple of panic.
"I would get upset when the fire in my cigarette would go out," Collier recalled. "Some crewman had allowed the oxygen concentration to drop a bit low. But the Kursk crew would be happy with that oxygen level compared to what they have now."
For Dan Persico of Amsterdam, New York, the Russian ordeal recalls the 48 harrowing hours he spent trapped aboard the USS Squalus, which sank in 250 feet (75 meters) of water off New Hampshire in 1939. Twenty-six men died. Persico was among 33 survivors who rode to the surface in a nine-ton diving bell lowered by a rescue ship.
The Squalus disaster began when a mechanical failure during a training exercise flooded the submarine's engine rooms.
Persico, now 80, was a 20-year-old sailor in the forward torpedo room. He and the other sailors laid on the floor of the tilted sub in silence for nearly 24 hours. The rescue took another day to complete.
But even then, the Squalus crew had advantages that the Russians don't, Persico said. "We were in radio contact," he said. "We knew the rescue ship was on its way."
Modern subs are high-tech marvels that can circumnavigate the globe without surfacing, from the polar ice caps to trenches deeper than the Grand Canyon. At 14,000 tons, the nuclear-powered Kursk is one of 11 Oscar II-class submarines and one of the more capable in the Russian fleet.
But when disaster strikes, modern subs are not much better than their cramped predecessors during World War II.