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Kursk sailors saw death creeping up

MOSCOW, OCT. 27. The last words of a dying officer scribbled in the darkness on board the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk proved on Thursday that at least 23 sailors survived the explosions that crippled the vessel.

The note was found in the pocket of Lieutenant-Captain Dmitri Kolesnikov (27), whose body was one of the first recovered from the wreck of the Kursk.

``It's 13:15,'' he wrote. ``All personnel from section six, seven and eight have moved to section nine. There are 23 people here. We have made the decision because none of us can escape. I am writing this blind.''

His letter, much of which was said to be personal and for his family only, is conclusive evidence that many of the Russian Navy's statements at the time of the sinking, in August, were untrue.

Lt. Capt. Kolesnikov, from St. Petersburg, who was the commander of the turbine team and the submarine's 7th section, wrote the note after taking refuge in the submarine's rear compartment.

He added that he heard two or three other sailors trying to open an emergency hatch in the rear section but failed. Divers later said the hatch had been damaged and could not be opened.

The Northern Fleet's Chief of Staff, Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak said most of the letter's contents were private.

``The note is very personal and will be handed over to his family,'' he said. ``Yet, it also gives official information.'' The discovery of the note contradicts the official version of what happened to the crew and embarrasses the Russian Navy further.

It has issued numerous contradictory accounts of the fate of the sailors.

As it became clear that the Russian rescue attempts were going to fail, the Navy took the line that all the 118 crew died ``within minutes,'' after several explosions ripped through the Kursk.

The note shows that at least a fifth of the crew survived for at least several hours. A Norwegian seismic station recorded two explosions at 11:30 am on August 12.

The Navy said the note was written at about 3:15 pm the same day, without explaining the discrepancy with Lt. Capt. Kolesnikov's timing. If he and his comrades were safe in an airpocket, it is possible that they could have survived much longer.

Lt. Capt. Kolesnikov's tearful widow, Olga, a school teacher, said on Thursday night: ``I had a premonition my husband didn't die instantly. The pain I felt then has come true. I'm preparing for a meeting with him. I want to see him again. I want to read his letter.'' The sinking of the Kursk provoked deep soul- searching within Russia and a worldwide response.

Rescue workers are continuing the effort to bring the remaining bodies out of the submarine, but work was stopped on Thursday due to worsening weather in the Barents Sea.

One hole has been cut in the hull, but following the discovery of the note, plans to cut another hole in compartment seven has been abandoned as all attention will be given to the final ninth section.

The Kursk was one of the most advanced submarines the Russians have and considered ``unsinkable.''

Its loss was the worst accident in recent Russian Naval history.

The Russians continue to blame a collision with an unidentified ``foreign submarine'' as the cause of the disaster.

All the major naval powers have denied their craft were involved.

- Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2000

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