Final Hours Of The Kursk
As the symbol of Russia's decline in military might has been retrieved from the seabed, new details have emerged about how the submarine sank. John Dikkenberg reports.
With the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk last year, the Russian naval fleet appeared to have reached the bottom in a long slide of efficiency and morale. In the days that followed the disaster, poor reactions and apparent disinformation surrounded the sinking and it came as no surprise when it was announced that the entire crew of 118 had perished.
Kursk appeared to represent all that had been lost from the former Soviet Navy and as the Russian people set about recovering the wreck, the world looked on in scepticism. But those perceptions may have changed by the time Kursk was lifted from the seabed on October 8.
Kursk was a 15,000-tonne (24,000 tonnes dived) double-hulled submarine of the Russian Oscar II class. Built essentially to counter the US carrier battle groups, these submarines were the largest non-ballistic missile submarines built and remain today among the most sophisticated vessels in the Russian Navy. The submarines have two nuclear reactors, two steam turbines and a diving depth of about 600 metres. These huge ships carry 24 Granit cruise missiles in external launchers and also a variety of torpedoes in internal tubes.
Kursk sailed from its home port of Vidiayevo in Uraguba on August 10 last year and exercised with the Russian Northern Fleet. On the morning of August 12 the submarine communicated with the battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and approval was given for Kursk to fire exercise torpedoes. Although conjecture, it appears Kursk was either loading or attempting to fire a torpedo which exploded inside the submarine at 7.30am. Two minutes and 10 seconds later a larger explosion, probably the result of several weapons detonating, was detected.
This second detonation destroyed much of the bow of the submarine which sank immediately in 107 metres of water. Those in the weapon space and the control room were probably dead by the time the ship came to rest on the seabed. It is also highly likely that a large number of the crew died quickly as weakened bulkheads collapsed and water entered compromised compartments. Within minutes, the survivors would have been isolated in the back end of the submarine. During this time the reactors both shut down automatically. Just how many sailors survived the initial tragedy and in which areas of the submarine they were isolated remains uncertain. We do know from bodies later recovered from the rear of the submarine that 23 were eventually gathered in the ninth compartment.
From notes found on one of the bodies, it seems conditions in the ninth compartment were stabilised when the atmospheric pressure in the compartment was increased to several bars and the ingress of water was slowed.
From autopsies conducted on the bodies, analysing the levels of chemicals such as adrenaline in their blood, it seems that the initial burst of panic and activity had subsided and by late afternoon some semblance of normality was returning.
It also appears that after the accident, emergency power failed and the survivors relied on torches for light. As the temperatures dropped they donned escape suits and attempted to leave the submarine using the escape tower in that compartment. In the event, the upper hatch of the tower had distorted during the plunge of the submarine to the seabed and as a result, it refused to open.
At about 6 that evening a decision was made by the senior officer in the compartment, Lieutenant-Commander Dmitry Kolesnikov, to start air purification and three sailors began replacing the regeneration plates in a device known as the oxygen generator. Perhaps because of fatigue, it seems one of the plates was dropped into the oily bilge water. The plates contained chemicals, including potassium which ignites when it comes into contact with oil.
Realising the danger, one sailor threw himself onto the plate as it exploded. In the flash fire that followed, the remaining oxygen in the compartment was consumed instantaneously. The fire died as quickly as it had started, darkness returned and within seconds life in the compartment ceased.
Over the following days, water slowly entered the ninth compartment and when Norwegian divers forced open the escape hatch on August 25, the compartment had filled almost completely.
As the immediate efforts to save the crew subsided and foreign help returned home, the Russian President declared that the submarine would be salvaged. On the face of it, Russia seemed determined to recover the bodies of the 118 personnel onboard but in reality, the Russians were probably more concerned about the accessible depth of the wreck and a fear that the US might exploit the wreck for intelligence purposes.
With the Russians determined to secure the submarine, negotiations began almost immediately and on May 18 this year, a contract was signed with the Dutch heavy lift and transport company Mammoet. Although not the preferred tenderer, Mammoet was the only company prepared to guarantee salvage this year. Subsequently, Mammoet included the Dutch towing and salvage company Smit International. Mammoet brought the lifting expertise, Smit International the ships, barges, divers and cutting equipment.
Salvage of such a large vessel from such a great depth had never previously been attempted, and brought with it many unique problems. Working at these depths had been largely solved in the oil industry over the preceding 15 years but Kursk added a high degree of risk. In addition to the concerns surrounding the fully fuelled reactors, experts were concerned at the possibility of unexploded weapons in the bow of the submarine and about the weakened bow separating from the remainder of the hull during the lift.
Mammoet arrived at the site in the Barents Sea in mid-July. The plan was to use water jets and abrasives to cut 26 holes in the hull and, using grippers (devices passed through the holes and secured under internal frames), attach cables to the submarine itself.
The bow was to be removed from the hull before the submarine was lifted from the seabed. After arriving, the divers were initially employed in removing rubber tiling (known as anechoic tiles) from the hull where the bow was to be severed and clearing debris from between the inner and outer hulls where the 26 holes were to be cut. They also placed remote sensors around the hull to check for radiation. July was the height of the northern summer and weather during this period was relatively good.
At the end of August, the barge Amt Carrier arrived on site with cutting equipment and moored over the wreck. Two hydraulic towers with a serrated cable between them were lowered to the seabed and over the next several days work progressed to remove the bow. Progress was difficult, particularly as the cable appro-ached the bottom of the submarine's hull. As the towers buried themselves in the seabed, the cable was constantly fouled by rocks and other debris. The bow was finally separated on September 20 and Amt Carrier left the site.
While work was proceeding in the Barents Sea, the lifting barge Giant 4 was being modified in Amsterdam to lift Kursk, and two special pontoons, Gon and Mar, were being built to provide extra buoyancy as the submarine approached the shallower waters of the Kola Inlet. Giant 4 arrived on site on September 26 and moored over the wreck. By now the summer was receding and as work continued the weather was beginning to deteriorate.
A level of anxiety was starting to enter the debate and postponement of the operation was being discussed in the media. Following a particularly bad bout of weather, the first gripper, with its attendant cables, was lowered to the seabed on October 1. It took the divers an inordinate 12 hours to attach it to the Kursk and even within the project, the magnitude of the task must have begun to seem overwhelming.
As the problems appeared to mount, the salvager's luck changed. A weather window appeared and in the relative calm, attaching the grippers became more routine. By the end of the process it was taking less than four hours to attach each. Early on October 8 the last gripper was secured and shortly afterwards the lift began. By 3.40am the submarine was clear of the seabed and several hours later Kursk was secured to the bottom of the heavy lift barge.
The barge and submarine combination was then towed 110 nautical miles to the Russian port of Roslyakovo where it is now moored offshore. Over the next few days Kursk will be lowered into a floating dock and Giant 4, Con and Mar will be withdrawn. The task for the Russians will then be one of recovering bodies and learning from the wreck the sequence of events that destroyed this pride of Russian technical achievement.
The Kursk disaster was a tragedy of the worst kind. Whatever the final cause, a lack of funding for the Russian Navy, inadequate training and the choice of cheap weapons rather than safe weapons would all have contributed to the event.
Misplaced national pride and the poor press skills by the Russian Navy in the immediate post-disaster phase added to the perception that sailors perished in an atmosphere of mismanagement and ineptitude.
As the final chapters of the Kursk disaster are written it is appropriate to wonder whether such events could occur again. There is in Russia a will to protect its young men from such unnecessary loss but the issues need money to resolve. Finding the funding among the competing claims for priority is impossible.
For the Russian military, Kursk is only the most public example of its problems and in a force where commissioned ships lie rusting against wharves and spent nuclear fuel rods are stowed in radioactive, rotting hulks, the quest for improved safety is likely to remain unanswered.
It would be remiss, however, not to recognise the significance of the salvage on the Russian psyche. To the man in the street the loss of Kursk marked the final decline of the Soviet years and was a statement to the world that its decline from superpower status was complete. Although the work was largely undertaken by foreign companies, the Russian design institute Rubin oversaw the technical aspects of preparing the submarine for the lift and Russian divers participated in all aspects of the salvage. They were the only people to actually enter the sunken hull.
To the Russians, bringing Kursk home was a debt of honour, and its completion will leave them more comfortable with life after being at the forefront of military might.
During almost 30 years military service, Captain John Dikkenberg commanded the submarines Orion and Otway, and the frigate Torrens. He was commander of the Australian Submarine Squadron and captain of the submarine base, HMAS Platypus, from 1989-93.