Kursk Submarine Disaster

The Kursk submarine disaster that caused the sinking of the Oscar-class submarine (Russian: Project 949A Антей) Kursk took place during the first major Russian naval exercise in more than 10 years, in the Barents Sea on Saturday, 12 August 2000, killing all 118 personnel on board. Nearby ships registered the initial explosion and a second, much larger, explosion two minutes and 15 seconds later, which was powerful enough to register on seismographs as far away as Alaska. The Russian Navy did not recognize that the sub had sunk and did not halt the exercise or initiate a search for the sub for more than six hours. Because the emergency rescue buoy had been intentionally disabled, it took more than 16 hours for them to locate the sunken ship.

Over four days the Russian Navy used four different diving bells and submersibles to try to attach to the escape hatch without success. The navy’s response was criticised as slow and inept. The government initially misled and manipulated the public and media about the timing of the accident, stating that communication had been established and that a rescue effort was under way, and refused help from other governments. The Russian Navy offered a variety of reasons for the sub’s sinking, including publicly blaming the accident on a collision with a NATO submarine. On the fifth day, President Putin authorized the navy to accept British and Norwegian offers of assistance. Seven days after the submarine went down, Norwegian divers finally opened a hatch to the escape trunk in the ship’s ninth compartment, hoping to locate survivors, but found it flooded.

An official investigation after most of the wreck was raised along with analysis of pieces of debris concluded that the crew of the Kursk was preparing to load a dummy 65–76 “Kit” torpedo when a faulty weld in the casing of the practice torpedo caused high-test peroxide (HTP) to leak, which caused the highly volatile kerosene fuel to explode. The initial explosion destroyed the torpedo room, ignited a fire, severely damaged the control room, incapacitated or killed the control room crew, and caused the submarine to sink. The intense fire resulting from this explosion in turn triggered the detonation of between five and seven torpedo warheads after the submarine struck bottom. This second explosion was equivalent to between 2 and 3 tonnes (2.0 and 3.0 long tons; 2.2 and 3.3 short tons) of TNT. It collapsed the first three compartments and all the decks, tore a large hole on the hull, destroyed compartments four and five, and killed everyone still alive who were forward of the nuclear reactor in the fifth compartment. An alternative explanation to the faulty weld offered by critics suggested that the crew was not familiar with nor trained on firing HTP torpedoes and had unknowingly followed preparation and firing instructions intended for a very different type of torpedo. Combined with poor oversight and incomplete inspections, the sailors initiated a set of events that led to the explosion.

Following salvage operations, analysts concluded that 23 sailors in the sixth through ninth compartments had survived the two explosions. They took refuge in the ninth compartment and survived more than six hours before an oxygen cartridge contacted the oily sea water, triggering an explosion and flash fire that consumed the remaining oxygen. All 118 personnel—111 crew members, five officers from 7th SSGN Division Headquarters, and two design engineers—aboard the Kursk died. The investigation concluded the Russian navy was completely unprepared to respond to the disaster.[1] The following year, a Dutch team was contracted by the Russians to raise the hull. Employing newly developed lifting technologies, they recovered all but the bow of the vessel, including the remains of 115 sailors, who were buried in Russia.[2] More than two years after the sinking, the Russian government completed a 133-volume, top-secret investigation of the disaster. The government released a four-page summary to the public that was published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta. It revealed “stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment,” and “negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement.” The report said the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed.

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