Recovery crews cut through ill-fated Kursk’s outer hull

Associated Press

MOSCOW — Russian and Norwegian divers maneuvering in Arctic depths carefully carved two small holes in the outer hull of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk on Saturday, launching a risky effort to recover bodies of the 118 sailors inside.

The divers arrived at the site in the Barents Sea on Friday night — more than two months after the accident that destroyed the Kursk — and shortly after midnight began descending to the ship in an orange diving capsule, officials said.

Working in teams of three, the divers surveyed the ship and determined where they would start cutting into the ship. By late afternoon, they had stenciled two holes in the outer hull and pried them open with special mallets, said Russian Navy spokesman Vadim Serga.

Serga said preparations have begun for cutting into the thicker inner hull, but that it probably wouldn’t be completed until Tuesday. The divers planned to work around the clock in five- to six-hour shifts.

They were slowed Saturday night by troubles slicing through a layer of industrial rubber between the outer and inner hulls, Russia’s RTR television reported. The rubber was designed to muffle sounds from inside the submarine to make it harder to detect, and was apparently sturdier than the divers expected.

The recovery operation is concentrated outside the submarine’s rear two compartments. The rear was less damaged than the front end, which suffered an explosion and hit the sea floor first in the Aug. 12 accident. The ship lies 330 feet below the surface.

Top Russian military officials have warned that safety concerns, including fears about the Kursk’s two nuclear reactors, might force the Navy to call off the complex underwater work.

The divers briefly halted the delicate operation at one point Saturday to release pressure from special air pipes between the inner and outer hulls, to prevent possible explosions.

"The divers have bled off the pressure of some high-pressure pipes to ensure they are neutralized," said Birger Haraldseid, a spokesman for the Norwegian subsidiary of Halliburton, the Dallas-based oil services company formerly run by GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney. "This is an important safety measure."

Speaking from Norway, Haraldseid said the dive was on schedule and there were no problems so far.

Weather was good at the site Saturday but meteorologists warned that the seas could grow rough in the next few days, complicating the salvage effort.

Norwegian radiation monitoring experts at the recovery site reported normal radiation levels throughout Saturday’s operation, Russian news reports said.

All 118 seamen on board the Kursk died when the submarine exploded and sank during naval exercises in the Barents Sea. Russian officials have not determined the cause of the accident. They are considering an internal malfunction, a collision with a Western submarine or collision with a World War II-era mine.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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