MOSCOW — A Russian nuclear submarine with more than 100 crew members was trapped Monday on the ocean floor above the Arctic Circle, and chances of a rescue were not good, Russia's navy chief said.
Russian navy commander Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov said the submarine Kursk had apparently been involved in a major collision and sustained serious damage.
"Despite all the efforts being taken, the probability of a successful outcome from the situation with the Kursk is not very high," Kuroyedov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Navy officials confirmed Kuroyedov made the remarks.
It was the first major crisis involving a Russian nuclear submarine in more than a decade. In 1989, a nuclear submarine sank after catching fire, killing 42 sailors.
The Kursk plunged to the floor of the Barents Sea on Sunday while taking part in a major naval exercise off Russia's northern coast. Navy officials had insisted throughout the day Monday that conditions on the submarine were good and said nothing about a collision until the admiral's announcement that hopes of rescuing the vessel were fading.
Navy officials declined to say Monday how far the vessel was beneath the surface, but a Norwegian report said the Kursk was some 480 feet down, a depth at which it would be very difficult to rescue anyone because of the enormous water pressure.
Kuroyedov said it appeared that the submarine suffered major damage after colliding with another object, but he gave no further details. "There are signs of a big and serious collision," he said.
Russian and Western submarines sometimes play cat-and-mouse games in the area and have scraped each other in the past, according to reports. The Kursk was taking part in major naval exercises, which are closely monitored by the U.S. and other Western warships.
Earlier, navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said the Oscar-class submarine was not carrying any nuclear weapons and there was no danger of radiation leaks or an explosion. The vessel's two nuclear reactors had been shut down, he said.
If the submarine was involved in a collision that ruptured its hull, there could be a chance of radioactive leaks. But Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik said there was no sign of a leak.
The Barents Sea is in arctic waters bordering the northwest coast of Russia and the northern tip of Norway. Rescue ships were at the scene, trying to assist the stricken submarine.
The Kursk was built in 1994 and went into service in 1995, making it one of the newest vessels in the Russian navy. It is a nuclear strategic submarine that can carry up to 24 nuclear surface-to-surface missiles, used mainly in combat with ships.
NTV television news, citing unnamed sources, reported earlier that water gushed through the Kursk's torpedo tubes during a firing exercise and flooded the front of the vessel.
In an emergency, a submarine would surface if at all possible. But Dygalo said the vessel was forced to descend to the ocean floor, indicating that the crew had lost control.
Vladimir Gundarov, a submarine specialist at Red Star, the official daily newspaper of the Russian military, said rescuing people from a submarine is very difficult and that there is no set procedure. The Russian navy does not have advanced submarine rescue vessels, according to standard naval reference works.
"The situation is extremely negative," Gundarov said.
The crew may be able to use rescue capsules, but in a worst-case scenario would have to try escape by swimming out through the torpedo tubes, Gundarov said.
"It is extremely risky, but they are all trained to do this," he said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the U.S. military has not been asked to assist. Other military officials said that although the U.S. Navy has submarine rescue vessels, their hatches are compatible only with U.S.-made submarines and could not be used in this case.
Russian nuclear submarines have been involved in a string of accidents in recent decades.
In the last major accident involving one of Moscow's nuclear submarines, the Komsomolets sank in April 1989 after catching fire 210 miles north of Norway. Forty-two of the 69 Soviet sailors aboard died in the accident.
The Russian military, including the navy, is in shambles, with no regular maintenance of weapons and other equipment. Many warships do not receive the regular servicing needed to keep them seaworthy, according to navy officers and veterans.
The Izvestia newspaper reported recently that, according to the most conservative estimate, 507 submarine crew members have died during the 40-year history of Russian nuclear submarines.