Sub victims' relatives pay tribute at disaster site

MOSCOW - Reeling from shock and heartbreak, relatives tossed flowers Thursday into the waves of the frigid, gray Barents Sea in tribute to 118 men killed when their nuclear submarine crumpled in an explosion and sank to the silt below.

While some family members still insisted they want the bodies retrieved before they will mourn, most boarded a Russian ship for the area near where the Kursk went down Aug. 12, as their anger over the tragedy that transfixed this nation turned into grief and resignation.

Wives, mothers and fathers with ashen faces huddled together and looked over the deck railings. An Orthodox priest and Muslim cleric led prayers for the victims, then the relatives threw fresh flowers and wreaths, including one from President Vladimir Putin, into the sea. The boat circled the floating flowers before returning to shore.

The disaster has been a grueling ordeal for the families, many of whom found out about the sinking only from television reports, then endured days of a confused rescue operation, then only heard from Norwegian divers that their sons and husbands were dead.

Earlier Thursday, many relatives of the crew clustered to watch the laying of a foundation stone for a memorial to the Kursk in the town of Vidyayevo, where the ship had been based. Two women fainted, and several people fell onto the grassy slope sobbing and kissing the earth.

''Farewell, my son!'' one woman wailed.

Putin and the government came under heavy attack from Russians for the slow, contradictory reports on the disaster. In an unusually humble response for a Russian leader, Putin said on national television Wednesday night that he felt ''responsible and guilty'' for the tragedy.

Boris Vlasov, a former submarine officer who was on the relatives' boat Thursday, recalled how he accompanied his son Sergei to the Kursk when it left for the military exercises that would take his life.

''He said, Dad, it's three days,'' Vlasov said on ORT television.

Vlasov said he was reluctant to throw flowers into the sea. ''I don't want to throw a wreath. I am waiting'' to see Sergei's body, he said.

Russia is negotiating with Norwegian and Dutch companies for help lifting the submarine and recovering the bodies. But such a project was not likely to begin at the site above the Arctic Circle until next spring, Russian officials say.

A spokesman for the Norwegian company cautioned Thursday that any attempt to raise the vessel must be weighed against the environmental risk of a potential radiation leak.

''No one has ever lifted a nuclear submarine before, and that opens all kinds of questions,'' said Julian Thomson, spokesman for Stolt Offshore oil services company.

Thomson, whose company sent the rescue divers, said the questions include the state of the two nuclear reactors, torpedoes and other munitions on board. No radiation leaks have been recorded so far by Russian or foreign sensors.

It was Norwegian divers who finally opened the Kursk's escape hatch and determined all aboard were dead. Norway's military said Thursday that early information from the Russians was so bad that the Norwegians were not sure conditions were safe enough for the diving team to continue.

It remained unclear what caused the explosions that crippled the Kursk.

While top Russian officials say the most likely cause was a collision with a foreign submarine, no concrete evidence has been provided. Others say a likely scenario was an internal malfunction and explosion in the Kursk's torpedo compartment.

Despite widespread dismay over the Kursk crisis, Putin's support does not appear to have been undermined, according to a poll released Thursday.

The poll by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research showed Putin's approval rating at 65 percent. That was nearly identical to the previous poll, the newspaper Segodnya cited poll director Yuri Levada as saying. The poll surveyed 1,600 people from Saturday to Monday. No margin of error was given.


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