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'Kursk Salvage is an Adventurist Scam'

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AP

Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea

Vice-Admiral Yevgeni Chernov knows the pain and anguish of losing a nuclear submarine. Once, as commander of the 1st Nuclear Submarine Flotilla of the Soviet Union's Northern Fleet, Chernov kept his flag on the Komsomolets. In April 1989, when Chernov was a professor at the Naval College, his former flagship sank in the Norwegian Sea. For the last nine years, the 71-year-old Hero of the Soviet Union who spent 33 years in nuclear submarines has been heading the Charity Foundation in Memory of the Komsomolets (echernov@online.ru). But Chernov today is focused on the fate of a more recent Northern Fleet casualty, the Kursk, which he believes is being covered up by the Russian authorities. He talked with TIME's Yuri Zarakhovich at his modest office in St. Petersburg.

TIME: You have referred to the Kursk raising operation as "mystification and profanation". Why?

Chernov: We expected an expert professional investigation as the basis for decision-making. Instead, incompetent conmen came up with hasty decisions. We said outright that it was an adventurist sham. They can't even have their equipment moved to the place on time. But the weather in the area will get prohibitive within a couple of weeks. The whole thing is doomed to fail. I can't find decent words to describe all this. I can only suspect that they never intended to raise the Kursk at all.

Why?

Those involved don't want the truth disclosed.

What is there to hide?

We were astonished that such a giant submarine found itself in shallow waters. Charting the exercises zone was (Northern Fleet Chief of Staff Vice-Admiral Mikhail) Motsak's responsibility. Himself a submariner, he should have known better than that. Now, he is in charge of the raising operation. Motsak and (Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Vyacheslav) Popov were supposed to know where all their ships were. The ships' positions can be easily restored, all the data is on the record.

But it has not been done?

Had it been done, we would have known what happened to the Kursk. Now, there are three versions. A floating mine, which is nonsense. A collision with a submarine, but there were no other submarines there. Or a collision with a surface ship. Had they shown that there were no surface ships in the area, this version could have been ruled out for good. But their failure to have done so makes doubts linger.

The Norwegians registered two powerful explosions during the Kursk disasterů

Not exactly the explosions. They registered two major seismic tremors. Such a tremor could be caused by a heavy surface ship hitting the Kursk hull. The brass hastened to show that the Petr Veliki heavy cruiser was in full order. But The Petr Veliki was not even close to the place. The Admiral Kuznetsov cruiser was.

Did they also inspect the Admiral Kuznetsov?

They claim so, but I don't know. There was no expert conclusion.

They have nine more subs of the Kursk type. Rear-Admiral Yuri Senatski, once the Soviet Navy's chief rescue specialist says it's criminal to let them sail if they don't know what happened to the Kursk.

Well, what if they do know?

Do they?

One may easily suppose so. There have been plenty of cases like this. They knew damn well that the Komsomolets died, because they sent it out with an untrained crew. But they have been concealing it for eleven years now.

Who handles the Kursk raising operation?

The Rubin Design Bureau. They design fine subs, but have no experience in raising them. They tried once to raise the Komsomolets rescue capsule from 1650 meters, using a steel cable. As the cable was shortening, it lost its resiliency and broke. They lost the capsule. Now, (Rubin's head, Academician Igor) Spasski shows his magic tricks with cables and ship models in a test pool to prove how swell his Kursk project is. It is as ridiculous to watch as it is painful.

Why was the job assigned to the Rubin, then?

The President ordered the Kursk raised. But the President is not professional in this field. He has to trust his advisers. But neither (Deputy Premier Ilya) Klebanov, or (Russian Navy's C-in-C Vladimir) Kuroyedov are professionals in this field either.

Did they consider bringing in someone like yourself?

I offered my services as a consultant, but was turned down. I asked Kuroyedov to bring in (rescue specialist) Senatski. Kuroyedov was not even aware of his existence. But they did not want us there.

You objected to their plan of cutting off the bow section?

We don't believe that it is necessary. The hole couldn't weaken the hull badly enough to pose a risk to raising the whole submarine. Also, this hole is the only "silent witness" of what happened. Making the cut through it will destroy whatever forensic evidence there is. Anyway, trying to cut the eight meter wide hull with a chain is ridiculous nonsense.

The Novye Izvestiya daily quoted a British diver last week as saying that the diving team had been already told that the operation would be postponed until May, 2002ů

I'm sure that'll be the case. They'll claim the weather as an excuse. But in fact, this is what ought to be done: Put the operation on hold until next May. Do a serious professional expert brainstorming to assess the situation. Use the winter to prepare, and then raise the Kursk and try to give honest answers to all the painful questions. Instead, they're going ahead with this rigmarole, wasting so much money.

Speaking of the money, how is your Komsomolets Charity Foundation doing?

In all the nine years of our existence we have been able to dole out only 850,000 rubles ($29,000) to help our 120 charges. That's less than one Kursk family was assigned on the President's orders. Of course, the Kursk sailors deserved that, but the Komsomolets sailors did not go to the sea fishing, either. They went where their country sent them to do their duty. Now, we have only 180,00 rubles ($6,120) left. Neither the state, nor any other sources of support are available to us. I think we'll pay out whatever we have left to the most needy children, and then we'll be forced to disband.