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The Tragic Sinking of Kursk K-141

September 1, 2016

Kursk K-141 was an Oscar-II class nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarine of the Russian Navy which was lost at sea with all hands when it exploded and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000. Work on building Kursk began in 1990 at Severodvinsk, near Arkhangelsk on the White Sea and she was Launched in 1994 then commissioned in December of that year. It was designed and approved in the Soviet era and the design represented the pinnacle of Soviet nuclear submarine technology. They were the largest attack submarines ever built and were intended to defeat an entire United States aircraft battle group in war. Their Type 65 torpedos carried a 990 lb. warhead that were powerful enough to sink an aircraft carrier, and their armament of missiles and torpedoes, could be equipped with nuclear warheads.  Her crew accommodations were ostentatious with senior officers having individual staterooms and the entire crew had access to a gymnasium which included a sauna and pool. The sub’s outer hull was finished with high-nickel, high-chrome content stainless steel, and it had extraordinarily good resistance to corrosion and a low magnetic signature which helped prevent detection by U.S. magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) systems. She could remain submerged for up to 120 days and the sail superstructure was reinforced to enable her it to break through the Arctic ice. The submarine was armed with twenty-four. SS-N-19/P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles. The Granit missiles, referred to by NATO as “Shipwreck” had a range of 340 miles and were capable of achieving supersonic flight at altitudes over 12 miles. They were launched in groups of four to eight at a time, and were designed to swarm above a group of enemy vessels while one of the missiles climbed to a higher altitude then intelligently selected individual targets and directed the others to dive toward and destroy the targets. The torpedo tubes could launch either torpedoes or anti-ship missiles which had a range of 31 miles. Her weapons also included, eighteen SS-N-16 “Stallion” anti-ship missiles designed to defeat the best Western naval air defenses.

Kursk was part of Russia’s Northern Fleet which had absorbed massive funding cutbacks throughout the 1990s, so that many of its submarines were left anchored and rusting away in Zapadnaya Litsa Naval Base near Murmansk. Consequently, maintenance work had been dramatically curtailed over the years except for the most essential front-line equipment, including search and rescue apparatus; as well, Northern Fleet sailors had gone unpaid in the mid-1990s. 

During her five years of service, Kursk had completed just one mission and as a result many of her crew had spent minimal time at sea and so were untried. On the first day of the exercise, Kursk successfully launched a Granit missile equipped with a dummy warhead and two days later, on the morning of 12 August, she prepared to shoot a dummy type 65 torpedo, affectionately nick named “Fatty” or “the Fat Girl”, at a  Kirov-class battlecruiser and the flagship of the Northern Fleet. These practice torpedoes had non-explosive warheads and so were manufactured and tested under considerably reduced quality standards than  torpedoes made for combat. The Type 65 was fueled by kerosene and massive amounts of oxygen in order to support combustion. The oxygen is furnished through the use of hydrogen peroxide that, should it inadvertently come in contact with catalytic materials such as copper, brass or any other foreign containments begins to breakdown creating excessive heat which in turn expands the volume of the peroxide by 5000 to create an extremely explosive situation.  The Russians were willing to gamble and use this erratic chemical in their weapons even though the Americans and British Navies, who had utilized peroxide fueled torpedoes late in WWII, eventually abandoned them as being too dangerous. Also, that category of torpedo required ongoing highly skilled maintenance and was expensive to maintain, therefore in the underfunded Russian Navy they were accidents waiting to happen. 

Subsequently, at 11:28 local time, Kursk experienced a detonation in the torpedo room while preparing to fire a torpedo. The Russian Navy’s final report on the disaster concluded the explosion was due to the failure of one of Kursk’s hydrogen peroxide-fueled Type 65 torpedoes, and a subsequent investigation concluded that the HTP propellant inside the torpedo, seeped through a faulty weld in the torpedo casing.

The torpedo loaded into the Kursk’s tube that day had not undergone the essential maintenance and, it and others had been stored away and neglected. Consequently, the peroxide inside the weapon leaked through a gasket or a corroded seal, contacted other brass or copper components causing extremely high pressure to build up within the weapon that resulted in the torpedo exploding. A huge fireball raged through the forward compartments incinerating and killing all in its path instantly. Within seconds the temperature in the torpedo room soared to 5000 degrees causing the remainder of the torpedo warheads to detonate with the force of five tons of TNT that demolished the forward end of the Kursk sending her down into the murky depths to collide violently with the sea bottom 350 feet below the surface of the Barents Sea. The resultant impact instantly killed the majority of the remainder of her crew. However, the heavily shielded and reinforced reactor compartment had negated the force of the blast aft and  four compartments in the engineering spaces remained unflooded where twenty-three courageous submariners awaited their fate. The survivors helped each other into the last compartment; they were alive, but the air they breathed was rapidly filling with carbon monoxide and the atmosphere within the small space where they huddled was miserably cold and dark; subconsciously they feared that no one on the surface was aware of their predicament. 

The boat had sunk in relatively shallow water, bottoming out at 354 ft. and laying 84 miles off  Severomorsk. Comparable to most modern submarines Kursk was equipped with two escape hatches of which the aft one had survived the calamity. There was a slim chance that the men could escape by attempting a free ascent to the surface and survive, however, if not rescued immediately they would die from hypothermia in mere minutes in the frigid winds and water above on the surface. Another impediment was that the compartment they were in was leaking sea water through the propulsion shafts that traverse the pressure hull, and the sea pressure at 350 feet caused the water to spurt into the compartment. Drowning however, wasn’t their chief concern, rather as the compartment slowly flooded as water filled space in the sealed compartment it would cause the atmospheric pressure to rise to hazardous levels that could prevent their breathing. Even though faced with multiple hazards they agreed to stay put and await rescue from the surface. Nonetheless, there had been no decision concerning a rescue attempt because the commander of the Russian fleet aboard the flagship supposed that he would take the burden of the blame for Kursk’s loss and thus decided to delay a decision. However, twelve hours later the news was finally reported to the Russian high command and an emergency declared. 

The Russian Navy did have a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles (DSRV) located nearby so it was loaded aboard a support ship and dispatched to the scene arriving two days after the sinking. However, it was obsolete and equipped with rudimentary thrusters making it difficult to position it over the sunken submarine, and her outdated propulsion batteries only permitted a short submergion time prior to having to return to the surface to be recharged. So, although they made several valiant attempts to lock onto the Kursk’s escape hatch on their initial decent they failed and were forced to return to the surface. It became quickly apparent that the DSRV was incapable of making the rescue of the trapped sailors. 

There were other alternatives available for rescue because both the British and American Navies were aware that a Russian sub was down and they pocessed modern rescue subs available and ready to travel anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice should their assistance be requested by the Russians.  However, the Russians balked at seeking their assistance because they had been adversaries for over 40 years during the Cold War, and to ask for outside help was more than the proud Russian Admirals could bear to do since they were still conducting mutual surveillance, and in actually the Cold War was and is still a reality. However, the Brits didn’t come with as much political baggage as the U.S. and the British had two forms of technology that could be applied to save the lives of the Kursk survivors. One was 1500 miles away in Scotland, the LR-5 DSRV that could accommodate sixteen survivors at a time, with a crew of three descend to depths of 1200 feet. Equipped with sophisticated sonar, the LR-5 could be precisely maneuvered to the escape hatch of sunken submarines and make its approach from any angle because of its flexible skirt that could be placed over the escape hatch as water was pumped out and create a vacuum that sealed it over the hatch like a giant suction cup. The hatches of both vessels then could be opened and the stranded crewmen taken aboard the rescue vessel.

The second technology was saturation diving used in the offshore oil and gas drilling industry to construct and repair drilling rigs. It allowed divers to work under extreme ocean sea pressures down to 1000 feet and then return to the surface without suffering the bends. It involved inserting divers in a decompression chamber that increased the atmospheric pressure on their bodies equal to that of the depth at which they would be working.  The divers were then transferred directly to a diving bell and lowered into the sea where they donned their diving equipment and then entered the water to work. This allowed them to stay down for an extended time period. So, if the divers could reach the Kursk they may have been able to establish initial contact with the survivors inside.

Meanwhile, on day three, the recently elected Russian President, Vladimir Putin had been on vacation near the Black Sea since the sinking of the Kursk and hadn’t been informed of the accident until almost 24 hours afterwards.  He was advised to remain on holiday, a decision he would later regret. 

Simultaneously, in England, Commodore David Russell, the duty officer in charge of the Royal Navy Submarine Service had learned of the Kursk situation and, being a submariner himself, strongly empathized with what the men aboard Kursk were experiencing.  “We don’t need any orders in situations like this” he said in a later interview. “We know what has to be done, so we make up our minds and get on with it.” So, without any authorization or a request for assistance he began to set the wheels in motion to rescue the survivors and ordered the LR-5 loaded aboard a huge Antomonth cargo jet to deliver it to Norway and rendezvous with its mothership that then headed towards Russian waters. Soon after, the British embassy in Moscow made an official offer of assistance to the Russian government, and soon afterwards the Americans did the same.

However,  Vladimir Putin was told by the Russian navy that they had the situation under control and rescue was imminent. He then waited five days before ending his holiday at a presidential resort in Sochi on the Black Sea. Only four months into his tenure as President, the public and media were extremely critical of Putin’s decision to remain at a seaside resort and his highly favorable ratings dropped dramatically. 


Therefore, while 23 men lay beneath the surface of the Barents Sea their families were being misled by the Russian government. But, as the days drag by the media and public pressure build for President Putin to intervene in the Kursk situation, and, he finally orders his admirals to accept western assistance. So they send a request to Stolt a Norwegian and British underwater construction company for divers to descend to the Kursk to determine if they could establish communication with the survivors. Diving Supervisor Tony Scott jumped at the opportunity to help. So, he and his team of saturation divers met with the ship Sea Way Eagle in Trumso Norway, and in less than 12 hours the ship headed north along with the Normand Pioneer carrying the LS-5 DSRV and Commodore Russel as the coordinating officer of the rescue operation. On Saturday, August 19 at 11:30 the team arrived at the accident site with high hopes of a rescue, but were disillusioned when the Russians informed them to move back miles away from the site. They believed that the Russians thought that the survivors were already dead and that its best for them to bring the matter to a quick close.

By Sunday, August 12, 2000, the 9th day, the rescue team is still sitting idly by after traveling 1500 miles while valuable time continues to slip away for the trapped men.  The situation is excruciating to them because they know the men aboard the Kursk have little time left. Soon the Russians relented and authorized the rescue attempt. So, Scott and the other divers who spent hours in the decom chamber preparing to descend to the bottom, were lowered in the diving bell. There, Scott disembarked the bell into the frigid pitch black waters. In order to survive in this environment and maintain his body heat hot water is constantly pumped into his diving suit; he immediately recognized the prominent white painted ring encircling the Kursk escape hatch and proceeded to tap a known code against hull with a hammer in the hopes of receiving a return signal from the survivors. While above on the Eagle, the entire crew was watching the proceedings on TV monitors while holding their collective breaths in hopes of finding someone alive aboard the Kursk. Tony pressed his dive helmet against the hull and holds his breath in order to hear any response from inside the sunken submarine, but dreadfully, there is no answer from within. However, that didn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that someone might still be alive inside the sub because they could have been unconscious.


So now it was important to determine if the compartment below was flooded and the only access to it was through the upper escape hatch.   However, it was opened and the lower hatch had been opened too, then the compartment below would flood killing the men inside. In order to determine this the divers opened a small “equalization” valve located near the upper hatch to see if water would be sucked in. If not, then the pressures inside the trunk and outside were equal indicating it was flooded. They did this by opening the valve and squirting a white milky substance around it to observe if it was sucked in or not and regrettably, there was no detectible flow in or out indicating that the chamber was flooded. Later, when the inner hatch was cracked and opened the remaining residual gas escaped from the compartment and bubbled to the surface. It would later be determined that the gas was unfit to breath indicating that the survivors were dead long before the rescue attempt began.

Sometime afterwards Commodore Russel lead a memorial service to honor the memory of the Russian submarine sailors who died and, at its conclusion, he tossed a traditional bouquet of flowers into the sea above the Kursk.

Kursk carried potassium superoxide cartridges as a chemical oxygen generator used to absorb carbon dioxide and chemically release breathing oxygen during an emergency. However, one of the cartridges became contaminated with sea water, possibly when one of the drowsy survivors dropped it, and the resulting chemical reaction caused a flash fire which consumed all available oxygen. The investigation showed that some men temporarily survived the fire by plunging under water, as fire marks on the bulkheads indicated the water was at waist level at the time. Ultimately, the remaining crew burned to death or suffocated.

The Kursk disaster illustrates the extreme dangers that all submariners of the world’s navies willingly and routinely accept on an extended and daily basis while under the sea. They proudly wear their country’s highly esteemed Dolphin insignia of the Silent Service upon their chests and are bound together through time-honored tradition and their common affiliation in the exclusive and elite fraternity known as the “Brothers of the Phin.”

Resources and additional reading; www. Wikepedia.org, www.youtube (The History Channel).

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