Russia Attempts Submarine Rescue 'in the Dark'

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It's been a rough summer for Muscovites, what with the war in Chechnya dragging on and a bomb going off in a crowded downtown square. Their spirits could be lifted, of course, by a dramatic rescue of the 116 men trapped aboard the stricken submarine Kursk — but as of Tuesday, the weather and the damage to the sub appear to be dampening the prospects for a happy ending. There are still men alive inside the Kursk, tapping Morse code messages onto the wall of their stricken vessel 350 feet below the surface to rescue crews. But even as Russian authorities prepare a dramatic Arctic rescue mission, they have little idea of conditions aboard the vessel or even the whereabouts of all of the surviving members on the 500-foot-long submarine. Not surprisingly, the Russian navy has warned that the chances of a successful rescue are slim.

TIME's Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge phoned in this dispatch late Tuesday:

"The striking thing right now is the continuing confusion in the information being made available about the disaster — in particular, whether or not a rescue operation is going to be mounted in the next couple of hours and whether the weather will permit such an operation. The authorities are being very scanty with information, and remarkably self-contradictory. They say the weather is too bad to attempt a rescue, but also that it shows signs of clearing and that they're hoping to try something by late tonight Moscow time.

There are two official hypotheses over the cause — a collision and an explosion, although the authorities refuse to speculate on the possible causes of an explosion. But the chief designer of the submarine has made it clear that the authorities haven't yet ascertained where most of the damage is, which chambers may be flooded, and where the crew is at this point. That lack of information and the poor weather make one very concerned for the fate of the 116 people sitting 107 meters below sea level."

The cause of the disaster may yield further bad news for Russian morale. Although Moscow on Monday pinned the cause on a "big and serious collision" with an undisclosed object, speculation in U.S. military circles points to some form of explosion on board. A collision rather than an on-board explosion would certainly be the more palatable explanation for Moscow, since it would deflect attention from the state of the once-mighty Russian fleet.

But the Pentagon maintains that no U.S. vessels had been in the immediate vicinity of the Kursk, and U.S. military sources indicate that vessels monitoring the Russian naval exercises from a distance may have detected an explosion. Some Russian sources have speculated that the Kursk may have even struck a mine left in the Barents Sea since World War II; U.S. military sources believe it may have been caused by some form of misfire in a torpedo tube. An explosion would certainly underline the difficulty of a rescue mission, since it might have caused a catastrophic failure of the hull. It may be some time before those questions are satisfactorily answered, but for now all attention is on the human drama of a Hail Mary rescue operation that represents the last hope for 116 luckless souls.