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Russian submarine rescue bid under way
The rescue effort, which involved lowering a "bell" over the hatch of the giant submarine is continuing after a "serious collision" left the 14,000-ton submarine, and its crew of 116 sailors, sitting on the ocean floor in 107 meters (350 feet) of water and unable to surface on its own.
The Russian Navy has massed ships over the site -- seven surface ships, including an aircraft carrier plus three submarines.
Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the head of the Russian Navy, said the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk had been damaged in a "big and serious collision." He said the prospect of rescuing the crew was "not very high."
Kuroyedov did not elaborate on what the submarine collided with.
Earlier in the day, the Russian Ministry of Defence had downplayed the seriousness of the incident saying the 116 member crew was in no immediate danger, but later Kuroyedov said the situation was more serious than first suspected.
The defence ministry at first reported that the Kursk went aground after torpedo tubes flooded during a training exercise.
The submarine, with two nuclear reactors, the Ministry said, lay at a depth of 107 meters (350 feet) beneath the surface.
Russia's AVN military news agency said it was told by the Northern Fleet that the submarine was listing some 60 degrees to the port side and was 85 miles from the naval base of Severomorsk.
'U.S. was monitoring exercises'
The U.S. was monitoring the Russian naval exercises at the time of the mishap involving an Oscar Class nuclear submarine but have little detail regarding the incident, Pentagon officials told CNN.
Regarding reports from Russia that the submarine may have collided with a "foreign vessel", Navy and other Pentagon officials told CNN that there was "no indication at this point that a U.S. vessel was involved in this accident."
A U.S. surveillance ship was conducting electronic and acoustic monitoring of the exercises from about 200 miles away and at least one U.S. submarine was also operating in the general vicinity of the largest Russian naval exercises of the year, according to informed officials.
Officials cautioned, however, that they could not account for submarines or other ships belonging to European nations that may have been operating in the area.
U.S. officials call the Russian exercise a "major fleet exercise for the Russian Navy" involving "several dozen" Russian ships "involving all elements of the Russian Navy" as well as Russian Air Force planes and the rarely deployed Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov.
There are no nuclear weapons on the submarine, the Russian ministry said, and radiation levels from the submarine's two nuclear reactors, which were shut down, were said to be at normal levels.
The submarine was in radio contact with the surface vessels. When operating normally, the submarine can remain submerged for up to four months.
Norwegian defence officials said they were aware of the crisis, had a ship nearby, and had offered assistance to the Russian Navy. The Norwegian Navy routinely monitors the movement of Russian vessels in the Barents Sea.
The Kursk is one of the largest submarines in the world. It is 154 meters (about 505 feet) long and weighs more than 14,000 tons. It was built in 1994, and can carry 24 nuclear missiles.
Evacuating the submarine
Standard rescue procedures call for the crew to be rescued using a "bell" or "capsule" which is lowered onto the hatch of the submarine.
Russian submarine crew members are trained to swim out of the torpedo tubes, but experts said if the sailors tried to swim to the surface they would run the risk of being killed by the extreme depth and the freezing Arctic temperatures.
Paul Beaver, a spokesman for Jane's military information group, told CNN: "At 300 to 500 ft, you can actually swim to the surface. It is very dangerous to do so, but it has been done by the British Royal Navy."
"It's not what you want to do, because it effects your lungs, your hearing, your eyes and whatever. It is possible to do a free escape as long as they've got the escape equipment.
"The other thing you can do is put another submarine across, a special rescue vessel -- it's called a DSRV, a deep submersible rescue vessel -- and pull of people perhaps say 24 at a time. That's possible. The Americans have that capability."
In 1989, the Russian Navy suffered another nuclear submarine disaster in the Barents Sea when the crew of the Komsomolets abandoned that vessel after a series of electrical fires broke out. A total 42 Russian sailors died in that incident.
CNN Correspondent Steve Harrigan and CNN Military Affairs Producer Chris Plante contributed to this report
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