Historic Sub Disasters Left Little Room for Rescue

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Limited funds for proper rescue equipment, embarrassment, Russian bureaucracy, and a deeply engrained cold war tendency to cover up accidents all contributed to the botched rescue attempt and death of the 23 crew members who survived the initial blast on the Kursk.

It took 30 hours after the sub sank to launch a Russian rescue mission. Four days later the Russians still refused foreign assistance, even though the Russians were unable to help the mariners. Three more days passed. On August 20 a team of British and Norwegian divers were summoned when the Russians admitted they couldn't complete the rescue.

Less than a day later a Norwegian rescue diver reached the Kursk. By then it was too late. There was no oxygen left. All 118 men aboard the Kursk were dead, even though tapping noises from the hull were reported as long as 48 hours after the explosion.

The Kursk disaster was televised worldwide, reminding viewers of the dangers of submarine activity and the government's responsibility to protect the sailors.

"When you're viewing it [an underwater submarine wreck], you're viewing something very sad," said Robert Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration (IFE) at Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium and a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, in the documentary Dangerous Jobs: Submarine Disasters.

"It's the little boys and little girls [whose] daddy didn't come home to—the husband that didn't come home," said Ballard, who mapped the wreck site of Thresher in 1984 for the U.S. Navy. Thresher sank in 1963, 200 miles (322 kilometers) off Cape Cod, Massachusetts—129 men died.

After the Thresher tragedy, the U.S. Navy launched SUBSAFE, a program to improve safety and design standards on submarines. Two of the more important goals were to implement strict inspection procedures for submarines and their overall maintenance, and to install a submarine operator one second away from flipping an emergency switch that causes the main ballast tanks to vent and the sub to immediately rise to the surface.

Such an operator may have prevented tragedies such as the Thresher and Kursk.

For more on submarines, tune in to this week's Dangerous Jobs. The TV series airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT in the United States and is available only on the National Geographic Channel.

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Related Web Sites
K-19 and Other Subs in Peril
National Geographic Channel
United States Navy
Institute for Exploration
U.S. Submarines Inc.

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