Towed submarine sinks with crew on board

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW - Russian authorities abandoned hope yesterday of finding survivors among seven missing crew members of a nuclear-powered submarine that sank before dawn as it was being towed to a scrap yard.

One survivor was plucked from the Barents Sea shortly after the accident, and two bodies were recovered. There is no likelihood of finding additional survivors, Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov told reporters after arriving in Severomorsk, the main base of Russia's Northern Fleet.

"The sub went to the bottom ... with an open deckhouse," Ivanov said, which meant seawater would have flooded the ship. "It is impossible to find any of the remaining seven crew members alive."

Adm. Viktor Kravchenko, the Russian navy's chief of staff, said earlier that the sea was so cold that any crew members who made it out of the sinking vessel could not have survived more than 40 minutes.

"While listening to the hull of the submarine with the rescue vessel's equipment, there were no sounds coming from inside," Kravchenko said.

Officials said there were no weapons aboard the submarine, which was decommissioned in 1989.

Russia's last major submarine accident was the sinking of the Kursk on Aug. 12, 2000, after a torpedo exploded on board. That disaster, also in the Barents Sea, took the lives of all 118 crew members. Twenty-three of those men survived in the sunken vessel for hours, perhaps longer, waiting in vain for rescue.

While bad weather played a role in yesterday's sinking of submarine K-159, Ivanov placed primary blame on those involved in the towing operation.

The 1960s-era attack submarine was being towed on four pontoons from its base in the town of Gremikha to a dismantling plant in Polarnyy, nearly 200 miles to the northwest. The pontoons tore off in a storm, and the submarine sank in water that was 560 feet deep, the Defense Ministry said. It went down about 3 miles off Kildin Island.

Ivanov said he had been informed that "all the imaginable safety rules were broken during the towing," and also blamed a poor job of fastening the vessels to the pontoons.

"Technical standards of towing were ignored during the voyage, and there was no prompt reaction to the severance of the submarine from the tugboat," he said.

The crew was warned to abandon the submarine 40 minutes before it sank, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, quoting a Northern Fleet spokesman. But K-159 was one of two nuclear submarines being towed at the time, and the presence of the second vessel confused rescuers, the agency reported.

Ivanov said that Sergei Zhemchuzhny, commander of the submarine unit based in Gremikha, was being relieved of his duties pending an investigation. "I'm not a judge," he said. "A court will determine who is guilty of the tragedy."

But he pointedly added that he supported suspension of the commander. "The investigation will be conducted very thoroughly and scrupulously, and it has begun," he said.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was on board the Russian missile cruiser Moskva off the coast of Sardinia, accompanied by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a summit.

"The tragedy in the Barents Sea once again brings out the fact that seagoing requires discipline, that the sea doesn't forgive mistakes," Putin told the ship's crew.

"There will be a thorough investigation of the wreckage."

At the time of the Kursk sinking, Putin was on vacation and drew criticism that he did not respond quickly enough to the disaster.

K-159 is only one-quarter the size of the Kursk, so it is realistic to raise it from the seabed to scrap it properly, Ivanov said.

Because the submarine's two nuclear reactors were shut down when the ship was decommissioned in 1989, the nuclear materials on board pose no environmental threat, authorities said.

The Norwegian environmental group Bellona, however, questioned that assumption.

"It is clear that the old reactor of the submarine is not waterproof, as it should be," Igor Kudrik, an expert with the foundation, which has long studied Russia's nuclear arsenal, said in a telephone interview from Oslo. "So to our mind, the radiation leaks started right after the vessel sank."

About 140 decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines are awaiting dismantling, and "such incidents cannot be excluded in the future," Kudrik said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Yakov Ryzhak in Moscow contributed to this article.

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