MOSCOW — Frantic efforts to reach a Russian nuclear submarine trapped on the ocean floor failed Tuesday and chances of rescuing 116 sailors on the vessel appeared bleak as a storm lashed the area, officials said.
Twelve-foot-high waves and strong winds were buffeting rescue ships in the area above the Arctic Circle where the submarine was stranded, officials said. Weather forecasts said there would be no improvement for the next three days.
Efforts to connect air and power lines had not worked and there was no communication with the submarine, said navy spokesman Capt. Igor Babenko. Conditions inside the submarine, including how much air it had left, were not known, officials said.
"The projection of possible consequences of the accident in the Kursk for the lives of its crew remains extremely grave," Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov said in a statement Tuesday.
Navy officials denied Russian press reports quoting Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev as saying an operation to extricate the crew was underway. The navy said an attempt might be made late Tuesday if weather improved.
The submarine, one of the biggest and newest in the Russian navy, was trapped at a depth of 354 feet, the navy said.
There appeared to have been an explosion in the torpedo compartment in the nose of the submarine, sending it crashing to the sea bottom, said Kuroyedov, backing away from earlier statements that it had collided with something.
An explosion inside the torpedo chamber, which contains warheads, would probably have caused extensive casualties, analysts said. Navy officials said casualties could not be "ruled out," the Interfax news agency reported.
It appeared that several compartments inside the submarine were flooded, officials said. Submarines are divided into compartments that can be sealed off in case of flooding. It may be impossible to operate the submarine if several compartments, including the control center, are flooded.
"Further development depends not only on the rescue efforts, but also on the situation inside the hull," said navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo.
There were 116 officers and sailors on the submarine, Dygalo said, the first time the navy had revealed the size of the crew.
There was still hope that the crew could be rescued, Dygalo said. "We'll work with all our strength and means . . . to the last moment," he said.
Some 15 rescue vessels and warships were sent to the area in the Barents Sea where the submarine went down Sunday during naval exercises.
With no new ideas on how to reach the submarine, navy officials were consulting the submarine's builders for options, Babenko said. The Russian navy lacks sophisticated submarine rescue equipment.
"Something extraordinary beyond the imagination of an engineer" had happened, the chief designer of the submarine, Igor Baranov told the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The government ruled out seeking foreign assistance to rescue the crew. The United States and Britain said they were willing to help if asked.
Navy officials had insisted repeatedly Monday that rescue efforts were going well and conditions aboard the submarine were not critical. But they later admitted efforts to reach the submarine had failed.
Russian officials said the Kursk was not carrying nuclear weapons and its two nuclear reactors had been switched off, but the reports of serious damage raised concerns about a possible radioactive leak.
The new explanation of an explosion on board the sub came after navy chief Kuroyedov had said Monday that the vessel had been crippled in a major collision. Russian and Western submarines sometimes play cat-and-mouse games in the area and have scraped each other in the past. The U.S. Navy said Monday it had a monitoring ship in the area, but there was no indication that an American vessel was involved in the incident.
Late Monday, a Clinton administration official said two U.S. Navy submarines were operating in the area and one reported having heard an explosion at the site Saturday. The Russian navy has been firing dozens of missiles and bombs in the area during the exercises and there was no indication the explosion heard by the U.S. submarine was linked to the Kursk.
The Kursk went down far above the Arctic Circle, though in an area free of icebergs, said meteorological officials in nearby Norway.
The navy said the Oscar-class submarine was not carrying any nuclear weapons. The Kursk is designed to carry 24 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles meant to knock out large surface vessels such as aircraft carriers.
Some Western military analysts, however, remained skeptical and said the Kursk could have nuclear weapons, while environmentalists raised fears of a radiation leak from the vessel's atomic reactors.
Russian nuclear submarines have been involved in a string of accidents in recent decades. The navy, like the rest of the Russian military, is desperately short of money and performs almost no maintenance on its ships.