Historic Sub Disasters Left Little Room for Rescue

March 10, 2004

Modern day submarine disasters are rare. But few other events offer such limited opportunities for help. Sailors can do little but hope for rescue, or a quick death. Oftentimes neither comes.

One of the most horrifying submarine disasters in recent history occurred just a few years ago.

In August 2000 the Russian Oscar II class nuclear submarine Kursk docked at the Zapadnaya Litsa Arctic Naval Yard on the Kola Peninsula, 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the town of Murmansk in northern Russia. She was the billion-dollar pride of the Russian fleet—at 490 feet (150 meters) Kursk was twice the length of a jumbo jet and her double steel hull was designed to withstand a direct hit from a conventional torpedo.

The Kursk was originally intended to attack U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and was often equipped with two dozen SS-N-19 missiles with a range of 341 miles (550 kilometers).

But no submarine is impervious to the ocean—or to human error.

Russian media reported that one torpedo loaded onto Kursk was accidentally dropped on the quay. Without proper inspection, it was allegedly loaded into the submarine just before the Kursk left to perform target practice in the frigid Barents Sea.

"Submarine accidents are terrible, because often everyone aboard dies. The Kursk was not an exception," said Gary Weir, author of numerous books on naval and submarine history and head of the Contemporary Historical Branch of the U.S. Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C.

On August 12, at 9 a.m., the Kursk crew prepared for a torpedo attack on a simulated nearby target, the cruiser Peter the Great. The Russian Northern Fleet commander, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, issued the order to proceed.

But something went wrong, and a blast ignited the Kursk's torpedo room. (Two years later the Russian government concluded that propellant from a leaky torpedo caused the explosion.)

The Kursk sank within a few minutes of the initial explosion. The Russian sub, designed to kill others, now killed its own. Most of the crew died in the first few minutes. But in the ninth compartment, furthest from the explosion, 23 survivors huddled in the dark, 350 feet (106 meters) below the surface on the ocean floor.

"Operating in a submarine is a fairly unique experience, because the outside environment is very unforgiving," said Captain William Hicks, currently Director for Operations for the staff of Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. "The closest parallel to the unforgiving environment might be operating in a space shuttle."

Tragedy Strikes Russian Submarine Crew

Continued on Next Page >>


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