MURMANSK, Russia — The crew of a Russian nuclear submarine remained trapped under Arctic waters for the sixth day Thursday, and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov described their plight as "next to catastrophic."
A British rescue minisub was en route to the site, as well as a team of Norwegian divers, but they were not expected to reach the disaster zone before Saturday.
By then it might be too late for the crew of the Kursk, one of the most modern subs in the Russian fleet, which according to a Navy spokesman stopped pounding SOS signals on the hull Tuesday or Wednesday. New evidence also suggested a massive explosion shattered large areas of the vessel and many sailors had no time to escape.
Navy commander Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov estimated earlier that the crew would run out of oxygen by Friday but said later the air might last until next week. Some analysts have been talking of supplies lasting hours rather than days.
Karl-Peter Faesecke, a naval doctor with Germany's submarine fleet, told German television: "I think you can rule out a successful rescue operation being mounted now.
"If they are so weak that they cannot even tap on the hull with a hammer, then there is no life left down there."
Film of the submarine being studied Thursday showed massive damage reaching from the front to the conning tower that would have sent the vessel crashing to the bottom in seconds, navy officials said. The control room where most of the crew work is below the tower, suggesting many sailors had no time to escape when the submarine went down.
A Russian government commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov was meeting in Severomorsk, home port of the Northern Fleet, to take a final decision on how to rescue the 118 sailors.
Interfax news agency quoted Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Viktor Kravchenko as saying the commission would consider all available proposals, including using huge inflatable pontoons to raise the 500-foot-long sub.
A series of Russia's attempts to evacuate the crew using rescue capsules and a diving bell have so far failed due to bad weather, strong currents, poor visibility and the steep angle of the sunken vessel.
"Unfortunately there is no progress," navy spokesman Igor Dygalo told ORT television after a night and half a day of frenzied efforts to rescue the sailors.
President Vladimir Putin, who remained distanced from the tragedy at his Black Sea holiday retreat, Wednesday ordered the military to accept any offered foreign help, and NATO and Russia held talks in Brussels to clarify what else the alliance could do apart from the British and Norwegian teams.
The cause of the accident that left the Kursk crippled 320 feet at the bottom of the Barents Sea last Saturday and deprived it of power and communications remained unclear.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said evidence still pointed to a collision as a likely cause of the accident.
In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said their surveillance indicated there had been two explosions on board the submarine, the second much bigger than the first.
In Berlin, Karl Lamers, a senior German foreign policy expert, said Western countries had repeatedly warned of the risk of a major disaster from Russia's nuclear fleet because of budget cuts on its armed forces.
"There is no question the insufficient resources devoted to the Russian armed forces by the government are one of the causes for this catastrophic situation," said Lamers.
Contributing: Associated Press