Hope Dims for Russian Submarine Crew

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No one will call it that until there's no shred of doubt, but the rescue effort around the stricken Russian sub Kursk may already have become a recovery mission. As the extent of damage to the vessel emerges from the murky depths of the Barents Sea, prospects for finding any crew members alive appeared to have dimmed. The BBC reports that British defense officials involved in rescue efforts say a "high-energy explosion" inside the vessel had damaged an area from the nose to its central fin, rendering its forward escape hatch unusable. Rescue efforts, assisted by a British mini-sub and Norwegian divers, will now focus on the rear escape hatch, although officials say it's uncertain whether there are any surviving crew members to open the hatch from the inside.

Analysts parsing the bits of information that have emerged from the reticent Russian authorities and the video images recorded by rescue vehicles have concluded that the event that launched the sub's crisis was far more catastrophic than was first reported. The fact that the boat sank to the bottom (when the first response to crises on board is always to surface), and did it so rapidly that it was unable to even launch emergency sensor beacons, suggests a sudden crisis that may have overwhelmed the crew's capacity to respond. Indeed, the absence of communications from the vessel's command center, located centrally, suggests the damage to the vessel's interior is extensive — and that a considerable proportion of the crew may have been killed in the initial accident.

U.S. military sources monitoring the training exercise in which the Kursk had been participating reported detecting two explosions in quick succession aboard the vessel. While Russian sources initially speculated that the disaster may have been caused by a torpedo exploding in its tube, the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which works closely with former Russian naval officers to monitor nuclear threats posed by Russia's northern submarine fleet, has offered a different explanation. They suggest the damage to the sub was caused by an explosion in the pressurized air tanks situated between the sub's inner and outer hulls, either as a result of poor maintenance or because a navigation error had resulted in the sub's crashing against the ocean floor.

Whatever its cause, the Kursk tragedy may wreck President Vladimir Putin's image as the energetic, engaged leader who'll restore Russian greatness. The Russian media hasn't failed to point out that for the past two days, as the nation waits glued to its TV sets for scraps of news from the tight-lipped authorities about 118 of its sons trapped in the icy darkness at the bottom of the Barents Sea, Mr. Putin has been getting his own feet wet — at the sunny Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he's been water-skiing and riding a jet ski.