Construction on the Kursk began in 1990 at Severodvinsk, near Arkhangelsk. The Kursk, one of eight active Oscar II class submarines, was the pride of the Russian Navy’s new Northern Fleet. Commissioned in 1995, the Kursk was the Northern Fleet’s most powerful weapon.
This exceptional piece of engineering was 505 feet long and 60 feet wide and five stories high. Her accommodation spacious, amazingly she even had sauna baths and a swimming pool.
Even in the Summer months, snow has been known to fall on these waters, but it’s the only permanent ice free access that Russia’s northern fleet has to the rest of the world and it is also around this time, when Russia conducts war practice for the ships of this fleet.
High up in the Arctic circle where the sun barely sets at this time of the year, the long-suffering sailors of the Russian navy had a few reasons to be uncharacteristically cheerful, after years of accidents, underfunding and neglect.
The Russian sailors of the northern fleet, based at Severomorsk near Murmansk, were being put through some of the most ambitious exercises in the area in years, along with the aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov” and battle cruiser “Pyotr Velikity”. This would become one of the first large-scale naval exercises, planned by the Russian Navy in more than a decade. It included 30 ships including the fleet’s flagship Pvotr Velikity (Peter the Great), four attack submarines, and a flotilla of smaller ships. While it was on an exercise, Kursk loaded a full complement of combat weapons. It was one of the few ships authorised to carry a combat load at all times.
THE CAPTAIN OF THE VESSEL
The son of a submariner, Captain Gennadiy Lyachin, a 45-year-old career navy officer and submarine commander has dedicated his adult life, 22 years, to the northern fleet.
Lyachin met his future wife, Irina, while still a teenager at school in Volgograd. He was a star pupil and he was greatly influenced by Irina’s father who was a submariner himself. Gennady Petrovich and Irina were married after she completed school in Moscow, in 1975.
He entered the navy in 1972, graduating from the Advanced Naval School for Submarines in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1977, was commissioned as an officer.
In 1988, he received his first command, the Juliett Class also known as [K304]. He commanded her until she was decommissioned after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
His next role as executive officer on nuclear submarine Voronezh [K119] served his purpose until 1996. Lyachin was finally promoted to the rank of Captain (1st rank) and given command of sister ship Kursk [K141].
Captain Lyachin is a highly respected commander who is admired by his crew and known to be fair and capable.
Friday 11, August 2000
On the first day of the exercise, the Kursk successfully launched a Granit missile armed with a dummy warhead.
Saturday 12, August 2000
Day two and the Kursk prepares to fire dummy torpedoes at the battle cruiser “Pyotr Velikity”. These practice torpedoes had no explosive warheads and were manufactured and tested at a much lower quality standard.
At 11.28am local time, about 135km off the Severomorsk coast, there was an explosion while preparing to fire. A thorough investigation later would conclude that a high test peroxide (HTP), a form of highly concentrated peroxide used as a propellant for the torpedo, seeped through a faulty weld in the torpedo casing.
When HTP comes into contact with a catalyst, it rapidly expands by a factor of 5000, generating vast quantities of steam and oxygen. The pressure produced by the expanding HTP ruptured the kerosene fuel tank in the torpedo and set off an explosion.
A second explosion a minute and a half later, blew a large hole in the hull, causing the first three compartments to collapse, immediately killing all those in and around the control room. It is here that it was believed Captain Lyachin and most of his crew were killed instantly.
When Captain Lyachin was overdue to check in with the “Pyotr Velikity” in the traditition of the Russian military, the immediate reaction was to do absolutely nothing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was on holiday in Sochi on the black sea when he was informed of the tragedy, and was informed by the navy that they had the situation under control and that rescue was imminent.
The press wanted answers. The families were demanding answers. As the world watched on, the Russian Navy continued to give false hope, telling them that sailors could be heard knocking “SOS, water” distress signals for three days after the disaster.
They also reported that they first thought the Kursk had come in contact with a WW2 mine, but then they blamed the American’s saying they sank the Kursk and finally that the Kursk sank because of a collision with a foreign submarine.
AMERICAN SUB MEMPHIS WAS ON THE SCENE
Not far away in those icy waters were two American Subs and a surface ship, “The Loyal” spying on the doomed Russian naval exercises as part of their own monitoring operation. Even though a long way away from the Kursk, they were still close enough to feel the underwater impact of the blast without suffering any damage themselves.
For now all the Americans can do is sit out at sea and wait for ongoing orders as they are without a submersible vehicle to assist in any rescue efforts. US rules of engagement restrict snooping vessels from going within five miles of their targets. President Bill Clinton is informed of the situation at hand.
The American sub continues to gather intelligence by intercepting frantic messages between the Russians as they tried to find out what happened to the Kursk.
(US National Maritime Intelligence Centre who were later privy to sonar tapes and surveillance data recorded by the nuclear submarine Memphis, detected no indication of a collision involving the Kursk, such signals from a collision would be easy to distinguish and there was no evidence of such signals in the tapes they had examined).
The British and Norwegian navies offered immediate assistance, but Russia initially refused all help.
Officials and submarine experts said it was possible that some of the crew could survive the initial explosions if they manage to shut the watertight doors to their compartments in the stern quickly.
Unbeknown to the Russian Navy, Buried in the belly of the Kursk the heavily reinforced nuclear reactor had stopped the force of the tremendous explosion. Four of the rear compartments on the Kursk have survived the terrible explosions and in the red glow of emergency lighting, survivors help each other towards the last compartment. 23 men managed to make it to compartment 9, and here huddled together they awaited their fate.
Though the air will soon become a stale atmosphere rapidly filling with carbon dioxide. They are alive, but conditions are extremely cold, extremely dark, and worst of all, they probably have in the back of their mind, that no-one even knows they are alive.
These men, all in the ninth compartment of the submarine, broke strict protocol and abandoned their posts after disaster struck. They must already have realised that their colleagues at the front of the submarine had perished in the blast.
Like all modern subs, Kursk was equipped with two escape hatches, only one has survived the blast.
Officer Danilyan said the Kursk, which can descend to more than 1,500 feet and can operate autonomously for four months, has life support systems for two months. “There is no chance of radioactive leaks unless the reactors are destroyed,” he declared. “If there is no fire and no smoke, the depth of 110 metres is nothing terrible.”
Naval experts said that the greatest hope for the crew would have been to block off the front half of the submarine, which is dedicated to living quarters and weapons systems. If the living area could be sealed off in time, an operation regarded as very difficult to pull off, the crew could survive for several days.
The more likely hope would be that some crew reached escape compartments. There they could survive for several days, depending on their oxygen supplies, pressure in the compartment and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.
Commander David Perfect, a member of the UK Submarine Rescue Service said “It would be very, very dark and exceedingly frightening inside. Potentially the crew could be quite panicky. Whether or not they survive may well depend on the strength of the man leading them.”
After several hours inside an escape compartment the crew would be faced with a terrible dilemma. Do they continue to wait in the chamber in the hope of rescue, in which case they may die from lack of oxygen. Or do they quit the submarine and attempt to reach the surface – in which case rapid ascent may cause the potentially fatal condition, the bends.
Notes later found in the sailors pockets would confirm that 23 men survived the first blast and that a couple attempted to exit the vessel but it was deemed unsafe to those left behind so their only choice was in fact to stay put and hope for a speedy rescue.
In a passage from the note found and written by Lieut Capt Kolesnikov, (27) he reveals that two or three men were planning to make an escape attempt through the hatch. When this failed, the men realised they could do nothing but prepare for death.
As the most senior officer in the seventh section – commander of the turbine engine room, Kolesnikov took it upon himself to justify the actions of his men.
Writing blind, he wrote “All personnel from sections six, seven and eight have moved to section nine. There are 23 of us here. We have made this decision because none of us can escape,”
It’s unclear why the men were unable to put on diving gear and leave through the escape hatch. Some experts have suggested that the hatch might have been damaged in the blast.
Rescue efforts would not be initiated for at least another six hours. Then it took another five hours for the sinking to be declared an emergency. By then, 11 hours later, all crew members were dead, but it would take another 16 hours for the sunken submarine to be located and more days still for the extent of the tragedy to become known. For this, the Russian Navy was seen as slow and inadequate.
The Russian Navy had a submersible nearby which was deployed to the area, however, the Russian rescue vessels had also been victim to Russian budge cuts.
Sunday August 13, 5.20pm nearly 30 hours after the Kursk sank to the bottom of the ocean the submersible finally dives to attempt a rescue. The submersables batteries are outdated, so this will only allow a short time to attempt a rescue. In spite of the limitation, the submersible comes within meters of locking onto the kursk. But their attempts failed and were forced to return to the surface to recharge the batteries. It sadly apparent that the little Russian Sub is ill-equipped to bring the men of the Kursk back to the surface.
Drawing more public criticism, Putin only accepted assistance from Britain and Norway, five days later, but it came with restrictions.
It was probably unrealistic to think that the Russian Navy would turn to America for help. But the British Royal Navy doesn’t come with nearly as much political baggage.
Still pretending that everything is under control, The Seaway Eagle with saturation divers onboard charges towards the Kursk. She is followed by The Normand Pioneer, carrying the LR5 rescue sub. Commadore David Russell will be overall co-ordinating officer for the Royal Navy. What he needed was technical information, but the Russian authorities weren’t so quick to provide it. It was clear at the time that they were stalling. As The British Navy heads towards the Kursk, they are armed with little more than what they have read in the press.
Knowing the British Navy is on route to the kursk, the deputy Russian Prime Minister meets with the families of the men still on board the Kursk and attempts to dodge any responsibility for the accident. Without any evidence, he tells them that the Kursk was sunk by an American Submarine.
In a scene to shock the world, one woman who had a son on the sub, interrupts the deputy Prime Minister and yells at him disgusted that they have been left in the dark with little or no information on their loved ones, not even a word of hope. She is quickly surrounded by officials and a nurse medic standing by with a hypodermic needle containing a sedative is administered through her coat into her thigh. The mother sinks into her chair as the sedative immediately takes affect.
THE NORMAND PIONEER TO THE RESCUE
On the 19 August, The Normond Pioneer finally arrives at the scene of the accident. Hopes are high, the Kursk is a huge ship and a sealed compartment would hold sizeable amount of air. Perhaps enough that men could still be alive. However the Royal Navy are greeted with a shock as Russian Admirals arrive for a meeting.
The Russian Search and Rescue Commander tells Commadore David Russell that the LR5 will have to remain miles away from the Kursk. The rescue team are beginning to wonder why they are even there.
It was believed by the British Navy that the Russians already believed the men were dead, and all they wanted was that to be confirmed, nothing more. It appears that all the rescue efforts by the British Norwegian team wont be allowed to give the men on the Kursk that one last chance at survival.
And after travelling over 15 hundred miles the LR5 and its crew are forced anchor at sea miles from the Kursk. The Russian Admirals wont admit it, but they never wanted Western aid in the first place. But the Russians do finally authorise the divers from Seaway Eagle to go down to Kursk and see if there is in fact still life onboard. Tony Scott and the other divers had already been spending hours in the chamber preparing for the decent. Now they enter the diving bell and head for the bottom. Scott was the first to leave the bell and venture out into the cold pitch dark world of the ocean floor. To maintain body heat at this depth hot water is constantly pumped into his suit.
Scott reaches the vessel and taps a pr-arrange code on the side of the hull. There was no doubt it would be heard inside. Amid the silence, they wait, wait in hope there would be some sign they were still alive. Everyone on the Eagle was awake and holding their breathe in anticipation. Scott rests his head on the hull and stops breathing for a moment to listen for a response. Sadly there is no answer. But the lack of response to the tapping doesn’t completely rule out life inside. They could just be unconscious.
Now the divers thoughts turn to determining if the compartment is in fact flooded. The only way to get into the subs interior is through the escape hatch that Scott and his diving partner are hovering over. The hatch leads to an intermediate chamber. Which is separated from the ninth compartment by a second lower hatch that opens inward. If the divers open the outer hatch and the inner hatch is already open, water will pour in and the survivors will drown. It is vital that they find out if the interconnecting chamber is flooded. They come up with a plan. They open a small equalisation valve on the outer hatch. . If the chamber below is dry water around the value will be sucked inward because the ocean pressure is greater. If the chamber is flooded, then the pressure will be equal and no water will move. The difference is critical. The problem is that it is almost impossible to notice the waters movement in the darkness of the ocean floor. So the engineers came up with a simple test. They needed a bottle filled with a substance that was easily seen underwater. For this experiment, they used milk and they simply squirted it around the valve. There was no detectable flow in or out which was pretty good evidence that below that hatch it was completely flooded.
The outer hatch is finally opened showing indeed the outer hatch is completely flooded. There is virtually no hope remaining they will find any survivors. But the lower hatch will have to be opened regardless. The door is opened remotely and the remaining gas that had built up in the compartment rushes out. Tests later would prove that his gas was unfit for human consumption. The work of the British and Norwegian rescue specialists was completed. They will not participate in any salvage effort. For the first time since it arrived, the Norman Pioneer was allowed to float over the Kursk. On behalf of the royal Navy Commodore Russell leads a memorial service and a reef of flowers are tossed into the water above the submarine.
Some of the men would be removed at the scene, others would have to wait many months due to poor weather conditions and structural reasons, until the Kursk is returned to dry land.
All attempts to rescue the men of Kursk have failed. But the impact of this disaster on a grieving Russia had only just begun.
SALVAGING THE WRECK AND ITS CREW
And President Puttin finally arrives back at the home port of the sub and to the waiting families of the dead crew. He vows and declares that the Kursk will be raised and the men returned to their families. Although the pledge is well received by the love ones, and grieving families, accomplishing such a feat, will be an enormous technical challenge.
Two dutch companies are hired to take on the immense job of retrieving the sub but work doesn’t begin until 11 months after the accident.
The forward end of the Kursk which sustained massive damage, will be cut away and left behind. Due to the build up of gases in various areas of the sub, cutting into unknown spaces can cause easily cause another explosion, so they will take all the time necessary to avoid another disaster. Many divers have died as a result of exactly this kind of work.
Once the separation was complete, a huge barge called “Giant” was toed from Holland and positioned above the sub.
Giant was equipped with 26 cables each capable of lifting 900 tons. Divers begin cutting holes into the side of Kursk, using powerful jets of abrasive sand. After weeks of work, each of the cables are attached to the holes.
Fourteen months after the accident, the Kursk can finally commence resurfacing carrying the remains of the sailors who rest within her. Even without her bow, the Kursk weighs 96 ton. Never before has anything this heavy been lifted from the bottom of the sea.
It takes 15 hours to raise the sub into position underneath the Giant. Ocean going Tugboats then begin to toe both the barge and sub to a waiting dry dock in Remansk.
As kursk leaves the scene of its demise, divers place a marble tombstone where the sub once lay.
Suspended beneath the barge, Kursk is at last towed into position in the dry dock.
In October, 2001, water is drained and the face of the great submarine, once again appears from the murky water.
In the weeks that follow, the bodies are removed and investigators pour over every part of the sub looking for answers. Just three of the 118 crew are left unidentified.
Autopsies of the crew revealed that they had in fact met with fate twice. It is believed that an oil film that was rising on the top of the water came into contact with a chemical canister containing potassium superoxide that generated their oxygen causing an intense fire in the compartment. Once this canister mixes with water, it turns into a blowtorch. Those who didn’t die from the fire, suffocated when the last of the oxygen was consumed by the flames.
It now appears certain, that all 118 crew members were deceased well before the British and Norwegian rescue teams arrived.
The men of the Kursk lost their lives because of Russia’s ongoing, unrealistic commitment to a level of military technology it could no longer afford. The tragedy of Kursk reminds the world that arrogance and pride can be killers when mixed with sub standard technology.
Kursk was eventually towed to a scrapyard where she was cut into pieces and melted down but the great submarine did leave something of herself behind, the drama of the men who fought for their lives in compartment 9, continues to provide her countrymen with an undying example of dedication, patriotism and courage.