MURMANSK, Russia – A daring effort to raise the Kursk nuclear submarine from the Barents Sea floor ended successfully Monday when a Dutch consortium pulled it to a giant barge, more than a year after it sank.
The lifting began shortly before 4 a.m. Moscow time, and it took the Dutch Mammoet-Smit International Consortium about 15 hours to complete the operation. The submarine was lifted on steel cables lowered from the Giant 4 barge and put in clamps under the barge, its protruding conning tower and tail fins tightly fitting into niches carved in the barge.
Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, the Russian naval commander overseeing the recovery operation, said the Kursk should arrive in harbor of the town of Roslyakovo, near Murmansk, midday Wednesday provided the weather stays calm, allowing the salvage team to take the shortest route possible.
"We know the weather forecast and will go directly to the Kola Bay," Motsak said.
If the seas get rough, the barge may take a longer journey, allowing it to wait out a storm near the coast. Weather showed a trend toward worsening on Monday evening, with snow flurries covering Murmansk with a thin, white film.
The lifting went on exceptionally smoothly and trouble-free after repeated technical problems and delays for the last three months. Experts feared it would be difficult to overcome the force of the sediment on the sea bottom, but that posed no difficulty.
Larissa van Seumeren, a spokeswoman for Mammoet-Smit, said the submarine was less deeply embedded in the seabed than believed. "We started to pull and there was almost no suction," she said. "It was lifted up easily."
Throughout the lifting, remote-controlled cameras and divers inspected the submarine, checking gauges monitoring radiation and the vessel's angle in relation to the barge, said Capt. Igor Babenko, a spokesman for the Russian Northern Fleet.
"The lifting has gone without a hitch. The divers have inspected the submarine and found no flaws in the salvage equipment," Babenko said.
While the submarine was still being lifted, the barge pulled up its eight anchors and began drifting slowly to choose the optimum position to minimize roll. The Kursk will now be towed to a dry dock in Roslyakovo at a speed of about 3 knots, Motsak said.
The lifting was originally set for Sept. 15, but delayed repeatedly because of storms and technical difficulties. The Dutch consortium previously severed the submarine's mangled forward section, which will be left on the seabed because of concern that it might have broken off and destabilized the lifting.
Each of the 26 cables lowered from the barge and plugged into the holes cut in the Kursk's hull is a bundle of 54 super-strong steel ropes. A central computer was controlling every inch of lifting, neatly balancing the required effort between lifting cables.
No holes were cut in the Kursk's reactor compartment, which houses twin nuclear reactors. The Russian Navy and the salvage team say the reactors have been safely shut down and posed no threat to the salvage effort.
"The radiation situation has remained normal," van Seumeren said.
Other submarines have been lifted in the past, but none has been comparable in size to the giant, 18,000-ton Kursk. Five other nuclear submarines -- two American and three Russian -- that have sunk in the past remained buried at depths of up to 16,000 feet because raising them would have been enormously expensive.
The Kursk sank just 356 feet below the surface. The salvage operation is costing the Russian government about $65 million.
The government said the Kursk must be raised to avoid any potential danger to the environment from its nuclear reactors and to shipping because of its position in shallow waters. The navy also hopes to determine the cause of the Kursk's sinking, which remains unknown.
The Kursk, one of Russia's most modern submarines, exploded and sank in August 2000 during naval maneuvers, killing its entire 118-man crew. Once it is put in dock, the navy will remove the remains of the crew and 22 Granit supersonic cruise missiles.