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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Few Clues as Sub Hunt Goes On

APNavy vessels plowing the waters of the Barents Sea above the sunken submarine.
Navy vessels plowed the rough and cold waters of the Barents Sea above the sunken K-159 submarine Monday in what the Northern Fleet described as a "search operation" -- despite an admiral's admission that the missing seven crewmembers were probably trapped inside the sub.

Four rescue vessels and three warships were involved in the search, Northern Fleet spokesman Vladimir Navrotsky said Monday. Navy aircraft also were scouring the shores of nearby Kildin Island, he told Interfax.

The Project 627A (NATO codename: November) sank 5.5 kilometers northwest of Kildin off the Kola Peninsula on Saturday. The decommissioned nuclear submarine was being towed from the Gremikha base to a scrapyard in Polyarny when steel cables strapping it to four pontoons snapped in rough waters. The submarine sank at 2:00 a.m.

Three of the submarine's crewmembers were later plucked out of the water. Only one of them, Lieutenant Maxim Tsibulsky, survived. The remaining seven sailors most probably went down with the mothballed submarine, which is laying at a depth of 238 meters, navy chief of staff Admiral Viktor Kravchenko told a select pool of Russian reporters in Moscow on Monday.

Kravchenko, offering the first explanation as to why a crew had been on board the submarine at all, said they were making sure the submarine's compartments remained waterproof. He said pre-voyage tests at the Gremikha base had indicated that they were waterproof.

Kravchenko said it remained unclear why the seven missing crewmembers apparently had not abandoned the submarine. The submarine went down with its conning tower open, and Strana.ru reported that Monday that the towing ship had radioed the crew to leave 40 minutes before the sinking.

Kravchenko said the submarine, which has a displacement of 3,000 tons, was not an environmental hazard, saying its reactor was shut down and sealed when it was decommissioned in 1989.

He said the vessel will be retrieved and scrapped, but not earlier than next year and without the assistance of foreign companies. Russian television showed hazy images of the sunken submarine filmed by an underwater robot.


AP

Maxim Tsibulsky, the sole survivor of the accident, shown on television on Sunday.



Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Sunday that the submarine was not being towed in accordance with navy rules but maintained that the 10-member crew was not to blame. Military prosecutors, who are investigating the accident, have asked Ivanov to suspend the commander of the Gremikha base's decommissioned submarines unit, Sergei Zhemchuzhnov, which he did Sunday.

A retired submarine commander raised questions Monday about the official explanation of the accident.

Igor Kurdin, chairman of the St. Petersburg Club of Submariners, said he strongly doubted that the submarine had a working generator and ventilators to run the waterproof tests at the base. He said it was odd that a crew was then needed to watch out for leaks since they would have been unable to do anything in the event of a leak.

Kurdin said an old submarine like the K-159 should have had a mooring crew on deck to monitor the pontoons during the trip but no sailors inside.

Kravchenko referred to the K-159 sailors as the "mooring crew," and Kurdin said he was puzzled to hear this. He said he usually had three -- but never 10 -- sailors when he served as a mooring crew commander for six of his 20 years in the navy.

The decay of the infrastructure at Gremikha -- a one-time submarine base that was downgraded to a junkyard after the breakup of the Soviet Union -- might have led to the accident as well, Kurdin said. In Soviet times, Gremikha had the equipment to unload the fuel, seal the submarine and fill its canisters with a buoyant substance that ensured it could be safely towed to a scrapyard with no crew on board, he said.

Apart from Kravchenko's restricted news conference and the Northern Fleet spokesman's comments to local news agencies, there was little opportunity for reporters on Monday to fill in the holes in the official accounts of the tragedy.

The rescued sailor was kept under wraps at a Northern Fleet hospital, and his father complained Monday on television that he has not been able to visit his son yet.