Update: Desperate Russians attempt to save sub crew

MOSCOW (AP) — The navy lowered a rescue capsule Tuesday in a bid to reach 116 sailors trapped in a Russian nuclear submarine stranded on the ocean floor, but chances of saving the sailors appeared bleak, officials said.

The capsule was lowered Tuesday night from a ship on the surface above the submarine, but there was no word on whether it had made contact, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said.

The rescue attempt came during a break in the weather, he said. Earlier attempts to lower a capsule failed Tuesday after 12-footwaves, strong winds and rain buffeted rescue ships in the area above the Arctic Circle, hampering the recovery effort.

The navy said there had been no communication with the submarine since it went down Sunday during exercises in the Barents Sea. Efforts to reach the vessel to attach air and power lines had failed, they said.

The submarine, one of the biggest and newest in the Russian navy, was trapped at a depth of 354 feet, the navy said. Conditions inside, including how much air was left, were not known, officials said. There was no way to know if emergency air and light systems were working, and it appeared that water was getting in, they 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.

The rescue capsule would try to latch on to one of the submarine's cargo hatches, according to Russian analysts. But a rescue could take a long time because the bell can only take 20 people at a time and would take up to seven hours to rise to the surface to avoid decompression sickness, they 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.

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.

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 where the submarine went down Sunday during naval exercises.

"Something extraordinary beyond the imagination of an engineer" had happened to the submarine, 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.

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.