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Note Shows Some Russians Were Alive After Kursk Blast

By Maura Reynolds
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

They were alive. At least some of them. At least for a while.

One of the first bodies recovered from the sunken Russian submarine Kursk on Thursday had a note tucked in the pocket, navy officials said. And with its scribbled, businesslike lines, it re-awakened all the pain and shame of last summer’s nuclear submarine disaster.

“There are 23 people here,” wrote Lt. Capt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, the 27-year-old commander of the turbine section, who had fled with his men from other compartments to the stern section of the crippled submarine. “We made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get to the surface.”

The note appeared to shed no light on the cause of the Aug. 12 sinking but confirmed the worst fears of some of the families of the victims: that their loved ones were alive for some time, perhaps just a few hours, after the accident and likely died a slow, painful death while waiting for help that never arrived.

And it also again raised the possibility that if the rescue effort had been speedier or more efficient, some sailors might have been saved.

“It’s painful; enormously painful. I had this feeling that my husband didn’t die immediately. Now that it has been confirmed it hurts a lot,” Kolesnikov’s widow, Olga, stammered through tears in a televised news conference. “I want to see him one more time. I want to read his letter.”

She was not the only one affected by the news. Divers who retrieved the bodies were reported to be undergoing counseling. Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, grew emotional during a dockside news briefing and warned reporters to show respect.

“Don’t pry clumsily into our souls,” he said. “We’re in pain.” Then he saluted curtly and marched off.

Perhaps none of the misfortunes this nation has suffered in recent years has caused as great a public outpouring of grief as the loss of the Kursk and its 118 seamen. Russians watched with anger as the navy tried and failed for days after the accident to reach the crippled submarine, hoping and fearing the sailors were still alive.

When Norwegian divers finally opened the submarine’s escape hatch Aug. 21 and discovered the craft filled with water, Russian officials tried to calm an aggrieved nation and defend their rescue efforts by suggesting that the entire crew had perished immediately at the time of the sinking.

Kolesnikov’s few lines removed whatever poor comfort that offered.

His 22-year-old brother Alexander, also a submariner, said Thursday: “I can’t really explain how I feel on hearing this news, but I am sure I wouldn’t wish you or anybody to be in my place now and feel the way I feel.”

Lt. Capt. Kolesnikov’s note was written on both sides of the paper: one side was private message to his wife, the other technical information.

Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, standing before family members in what appeared to be a classroom, asked them not to cry as he related the contents “or I will start crying with you.”

According to naval practice, he said, Kolesnikov started the note with the time: 1:15 p.m., nearly two hours after a blast in the bow caused the submarine to sink.