World

Beyond courage

A Canadian underseas explorer reflects on the Russian submariners’ confrontation with death

August 28 2000
World

Beyond courage

A Canadian underseas explorer reflects on the Russian submariners’ confrontation with death

August 28 2000

Beyond courage

A Canadian underseas explorer reflects on the Russian submariners’ confrontation with death

Joseph MacInnis is a medical doctor and undersea explorer. In 1968, he was part of a U.S. navy team that searched for the USS Scorpion, an American nuclear attack submarine lost off the Azores. He has also made a number of dives with Russian pilots and scientists in their extreme-depth mini-subs, including one descent in the Atlantic to 5,000m. Based on his experience, he paints a vivid picture of what may have happened on board the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk when an accident—possibly an explosion or collision—incapacitated the vessel on Aug. 12, and the surviving crew members subsequently fought to stay alive in their stricken vessel.

Before the accident there were 118 men—officers, engineers and sailors with names like Anatoly, Dmitry, Viktor and Pavel. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s and came from places like Odessa, Kursk and St. Petersburg. Their home and military base under the sea was a nuclear submarine 2xh storeys high and, at 150 m, much longer than a football field. Its principal weapons were anti-ship missiles, meant to be launched from angled tubes on either side of the sail, and wake-homing torpedoes launched from the bow.

The sailors in the forward compartments of the ship, from the torpedo rooms to the command centre, died instantly when the accident ripped open the bow and sent a shock wave and wall of water roaring into the ship, tearing out wires, flooding control panels and short-circuiting switches. Not long after, the ship’s two nuclear reactors shut down, plunging the craft into darkness. Many of those who survived were badly injured by the accident, the electrical fires and flooding, the rapid descent of the submarine to the sea

floor and the ship’s severe roll to one side. Some engineers and maintenance men in the after part of the ship, near the reactor and main propulsion rooms, were possibly able to secure water-tight hatches that sealed them off from the flooded part of the sub.

The men still alive were in shock, their hearts racing, their eyes wide with fear. Some were cut, bruised or burned. It is likely that some found themselves in compartments partially filled with seawater that sharply increased the pressure on their bodies. All were fighting panic. They sat in small groups, huddled together in darkness or dim light, trying to keep warm, talking in whispers. They had been well-trained, but not for something like this. They talked about how much oxygen they

had left. They talked about food and water and what they had to do to keep themselves alive. They talked about rescue. They knew that no matter how difficult the task, their fellow Russian sailors in the surface fleet would do everything possible to save them.

The diminishing air was filled with the fumes of hydraulic fluid and toxic gases. As the hours became days and nights, many of the survivors succumbed to their injuries and the lethal stresses of cold and entrapment. The levels of exhaled carbon dioxide increased, causing shortness of breath, fierce headaches and finally unconsciousness. Not long after the giant sub cooled down to the near-freezing temperature of the Arctic Ocean, some men began to die of hypothermia. Their arms and legs went numb, their hearts slowed and they slipped into a final peaceful sleep.

Like all submariners, these men lived by a deeply felt code that includes honour, loyalty and trust. We can be certain that, from the beginning of this tragedy, there were acts of astonishing bravery. Men closing hatches, fighting electrical fires or lending a hand to a shipmate— knowing it could cost them their own lives. Men suppressing their own terror and offering encouragement to others. Men joined by the sea and their love of each other.

As we awaited the outcome of this heart-wrenching ocean disaster, many things sustained the surface rescue teams and the families waiting onshore. One was the intense burning hope that some of the officers and men of the Kursk were still, miraculously, alive. Another was that, in spite of the difficulties with weather and equipment, some exceptional men did the best they could to rescue their brothers deep under the sea. Within every tragedy, there are individuals whose deeds transport us to a place beyond courage. El