A senior Russian admiral says 23 sailors in the Kursk may have suffered through three days of agony waiting in vain for a rescue that never came.
The theory contradicts the conclusion of prosecutors, who said sailors in the stern could have lived only several hours before succumbing to toxic carbon monoxide fumes.
"I personally think that life in the ninth compartment came to an end on the third day," said Vice Admiral Vladislav Ilyin, the first deputy chief of the Russian Navy's staff.
He didn't spell out the reasons that prompted him to challenge the prosecutors, saying only that he was guided by his personal experience as a submariner.
Most of the crewmen were killed instantly by the powerful blasts that ripped open the Kursk's pressure hull and threw it onto the Barents Sea floor. However, 23 crewmen remained alive for at least several hours, according to letters later found by rescuers. Officials have released only excerpts.
Vice Admiral Ilyin's statement stirred painful memories of the failed rescue operation, which drew massive criticism at home and abroad. The government hesitated for several days before accepting foreign aid, while Russian submersibles were unsuccessful in attaching themselves to the Kursk's escape hatch.
When foreign divers reached the Kursk a week after the catastrophe, it took them only hours to open the hatch. The public later learned with the navy had sacked all of its own deep-sea divers years before the disaster.
"It's even more painful to hear that 23 people might have survived for three days, and they failed to rescue even one of them," said retired Captain Anatoly Safonov, whose son, Lieutenant Maxim Safonov, died on the Kursk.
The Kursk's wreckage was raised and put in a dry dock in October. Prosecutors have removed and identified remains of most of the crew and searched for evidence that could shed light on the cause of the catastrophe.
The navy will launch an operation in May to raise fragments of the Kursk's bow from the seabed to help determine the disaster's cause.