MURMANSK, Russia - Laboring in the frigid murk of the Barents Sea on Wednesday, divers found and removed the first bodies from the wreckage of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk, Russian officials said.
The bodies of three crew members were found several hours after two Russian divers entered the submarine, where 118 sailors died on Aug. 12. The remains were taken from the wreckage and placed in a special container, which would raise them to the surface with the divers, Northern Fleet Chief of Staff Mikhail Motsak said.
A team of Russian and Norwegian divers worked for five days to enter the submarine. The bodies were found after the team finished cutting the first hole in the thick double hull of the Kursk, Motsak said.
Officials have said there is virtually no chance of recovering all the dead: Many were probably pulverized by a massive explosion that tore through the Kursk.
Russia went forward with the perilous, complicated and costly recovery mission despite military funding problems and the fear that divers could die in the attempt to slice through the damaged hull and enter the Kursk, 356 feet below the surface.
The massive effort followed widespread criticism that the Russian government's initial response to the sinking was confused and indifferent toward crew members' relatives, and that it stubbornly resisted foreign offers of help.
The cause of the disaster has not been determined. Motsak said the recovery mission has so far produced no new clues.
Some Russian officials have said the Kursk collided with another vessel, likely a submarine, while on military maneuvers. The United States and Britain had submarines monitoring the exercises, but both say their vessels were nowhere near the accident site.
Other observers have said the disaster likely was caused by a torpedo explosion.
Only Russian divers entered the Kursk on Wednesday. Their Norwegian colleagues assisted from inside a diving bell lowered to the wreckage from the divers' mother ship, the Regalia.
Divers used a stream of pressurized water mixed with diamond dust to slice through the 2-inch-thick steel inner hull.
The recovery team used remote-controlled video cameras to inspect the eighth compartment in the submarine's stern. They pumped out silt to improve visibility, said Northern Fleet spokesman Vladimir Navrotsky.
The divers also smoothed the jagged edge of the 3-foot-wide hole with a special cushion for safe entrance into the wreck, he said.
The divers are challenged by darkness, currents, floating debris and confined spaces. The head of the Russian Navy, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, had earlier warned that he might cancel the recovery effort because of the danger of divers ripping their pressure suits or cutting their air hoses on mangled equipment and debris.
Kuroyedov flew to a Russian naval vessel at the scene on Wednesday. He was accompanied by two widows of Kursk crew members, who brought flowers to cast into the water and home-baked pies for the divers, the Interfax news agency reported.