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Russian Submarine Accident: Communication With Crew Drops Off; British Submersible En Route to Crash Site

Aired August 16, 2000 - 10:00 a.m. ET

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

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with that hastening rescue effort in a stormy Barents Sea for the crew on board that Russian submarine. Now said to be 118 people believed to be trapped under hundreds of feet of water, air said to be tight and running out. A top Russian Navy official calls the situation, quote, "extremely grave." Still, there is hope, though, and new word that Britain may be joining this rescue. More on that in a bit later.

But first, CNN's Steve Harrigan now by telephone in Murmansk, Russia, the far northern edge of that country.

Steve, hello.

STEVE HARRIGAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, good morning.

Here in Russia's far north in the port city of Murmansk, it's cold, wet and windy, the Barents Sea right behind me here, the temperature in the mid-40s. There are high winds, especially out at the crash site about 80 miles from here. At that accident site, winds and waves so high that actually rescuers today, according to reports, were in danger of their own lives trying to reach that submarine.

Now, the families of those more than the 100 crew members in that sunken Russian nuclear submarine are just a short distance away from Murmansk. They are being kept from the press, set off by a roadblock. They are living on board a Russian ship.

Now, psychologists from the Russian capital have come to this far northern city in order to perhaps deal with grief in the coming days ahead. People are still holding out hope here. There have been church services throughout the day, many townspeople coming in to pray, to light candles. The Russian Orthodox Church is hoping that, somehow, some of these more than 100 crew members are still alive. There is, really, a sense of deep anxiety here, too. Most of these people make their living from the sea. They know what it's like to have that kind of fear.

Now, news of British assistance has encouraged some people. Other people, though, still treat it with some form of resentment, saying, why has it taken five days to ask for help from the rest of the world? -- Bill.

HEMMER: Steve, we'll follow up on that in just a second. But first, before we let you go, if you can still hear me, conflicting reports about signals coming of that sub. What have you heard there?

HARRIGAN: We've heard from Russian government officials during the day that there have been no signs of life throughout the day, no contact with anyone on that submarine. Of course, this has been a downward spiral over the past few days, the past five days. Initially, there was radio contact, then coded messages sent back and forth by pounding on the hull. Now, even that has dropped off. That does not mean that everyone on board is dead, it just means that they have not gotten any signals.

So, really, the waiting and the anxiety building here each hour in Russia's far north -- Bill.

HEMMER: Indeed it is. Steve Harrigan, again, thanks. Murmansk the city, far northern edge of Russia there.

Now to the latest on those efforts from the British government and military, Russia's frantic quest to get those sailors out from certain death, getting a helping hand possibly at this hour. As we speak, a tiny craft capable of diving to great depths en route from Scotland to Norway.

Let's go to London now and CNN's Christiane Amanpour for more on this angle of the story -- Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, as the desperate rescue attempts continue, there is also confusion as to whether Russia has actually formally requested now any help to help rescue these crewmen at the bottom of the arctic sea. Early indications were that Russia had, indeed, asked. But now we are hearing from the British Ministry of Defense that there has been no formal request for help.

What we seem to be able to gather is that the Interfax News Agency in Russia quotes that Russian naval commander as asking for help from Britain, but Britain still saying that it has not received any formal request to help.

Nonetheless, Britain is at this hour sending a small submarine known as an LR5 to Trondheim in northern Norway. That apparently will then, once it arrives this evening, be unloaded onto a ship, and then that ship will take this vessel to the site of the disaster. Now, that, we understand, is at least a day's journey away.

This submersible, as I said, known as an LR5, can carry 16 passengers out of the submarine if, in the end, it does connect with the submarine. It has a crew of three people and it has decompression chambers, diving equipment and survival equipment, life support equipment for about four and a half days. This British LR5 submarine, though, is equipped only, really, to be compatible with NATO vessels, so it's still not sure whether, once it gets there, it'll be able to do the job of attaching to the hatch of the Russian submarine.

Nonetheless, once more to say that the British have sent a submarine to northern Norway. At this point, we understand it will be on standby only until the Russians formally ask for help -- Bill. HEMMER: Christiane, best-case scenario, this is my understanding for how the LR5 works. There's a skirt attached to the submersible that goes under water, surrounds the emergency escape hatch. They balance the water pressure at that depth, 350 to 400 feet, then open that hatch? Is that correct?

AMANPOUR: Well, you're technological information may be a little bit more advanced than mine. All I really know is that this submersible goes down in a normal situation, and with a NATO vessel that it would be trying to help, goes down and its rings attach to the hatch of the submarine. Then that opens and then the crew would be able to come through. And, apparently, only 16 crew people at a time would be able to come through. And it takes several hours, as you know, because of the decompression sickness, potential decompression sickness, to actually come to the top with this.

So, it's a complicated situation and made even more complicated by the incredibly heavy seas and the underwater currents that we have been reported there where the Kursk is, in fact, stranded, and as to whether it can or cannot be compatible and match the Kursk.

HEMMER: Swirling sands, strong currents as well. Christiane, thanks. And we'll be back in touch live in London shortly throughout the morning here.

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