K-19: Sub Disaster Inspires Geographic's First Movie

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
June 28, 2002

The harrowing story of a nuclear submarine disaster that was narrowly averted on July 4, 1961—at the height of the Cold War—is the basis of the soon to be released major motion picture K-19: The Widowmaker. The gripping tale of heroism and sacrifice was buried in the dusty archives of the former Soviet Union for more than 30 years.

Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, the film will be released in theaters across North America July 19. The film was written by Christopher Kyle, from a story by Louis Nowra.

The story is about "ordinary people who became heroes when faced with a tragic situation," said Kathryn Bigelow, the film's director.

The Paramount Pictures and Intermedia Films presentation marks a new adventure for the 114 year-old National Geographic Society—its first feature film production.

Nuclear Disaster Narrowly Averted

What happened on K-19 is certainly harrowing and suspenseful enough to inspire a movie. It involves a frightening nuclear event at the height of the Cold War, when the world's two superpowers were locked in a nuclear standoff of mutually assured destruction.

Rushed into service because of the Cold War arms race, the atomic submarine was on patrol when its cooling system malfunctioned. This caused the reactor core to gradually heat up to dangerous levels. If the overheating core was not cooled, it could meltdown and cause a thermal explosion that would doom the ship.

The only way to repair the sub's cooling system was to open and enter the sealed reactor compartment, though doing so would expose the ship and its crew to deadly radiation.

Faced with a horrible choice, the submariners sacrificed themselves to do their duty and repair the cooling system. Eight men died painful deaths from acute radiation sickness shortly after repairing the damaged system.

Though the crew's actions were heroic, Soviet authorities buried the incident.

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