A Dutch consortium on today began raising the Kursk nuclear submarine from the bottom of the Barents Sea, where it lay for more than a year following the explosion and sinking that killed 118 Russian seamen.
The submarine was being lifted on steel cables lowered from the Giant 4 barge, and the Russian commander overseeing the operation, Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak, said the barge should start towing the submarine by noon.
The barge has already reeled in four anchors and will soon turn in the direction of land, Motsak said. The Kursk is to be towed to a dry dock in Roslyakovo, near the Russian port of Murmansk.
Motsak said the barge would start moving toward shore even before the submarine was raised completely to the surface - presumably to take advantage of the window of good weather.
"Depending on the wave resistance, we’ll figure out the speed of towing, which will likely be 2.5-3 knots per hour," Motsak said. "If everything goes fine, the barge will take its place in the dock in 1 1/2 days."
Larissa van Seumeren, a spokeswoman for the Dutch consortium recovering the sub, said the lifting was proceeding more quickly than planned because the Kursk was less deeply embedded in the sea bed than expected.
"We started to pull and there was almost no suction," she said from Murmansk.
"It was lifted up easily."
Every hour, divers manually inspected the submarine, checking gauges monitoring radiation and the vessel’s angle in relation to the barge, said Captain Igor Bobenko, a spokesman for the Russian Northern Fleet.
Visibility was hampered by a huge cloud of silt raised along with the submarine.
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 is precisely controlling every inch of lifting, distributing the required effort between lifting cables.
No holes were cut in the Kursk’s reactor compartment housing twin nuclear reactors. The Russian Navy and the salvage team say the reactors have been safely shut down and pose no threat to the lifting 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 £42m.
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 manoeuvres. Once it is put in dock, the navy will remove the remains of the crew and 22 Granit cruise missiles.