World

Entombed in the Deep

Russian officials finally admit defeat after a last-ditch international effort to save 118 sailors aboard the Kursk

Barry Came August 28 2000
World

Entombed in the Deep

Russian officials finally admit defeat after a last-ditch international effort to save 118 sailors aboard the Kursk

Barry Came August 28 2000

Entombed in the Deep

World

Russian officials finally admit defeat after a last-ditch international effort to save 118 sailors aboard the Kursk

Barry Came

For the luckier +members of the crew, death may have been mercifully swift. It came instantly, in all probability, the moment that something catastrophic—an explosion, a collision—ripped through the torpedo compartments in the bow of the Kursk, flooding the forward sections of the Russian subma-

rine with icy Arctic seawater. But those who escaped the initial disaster faced a far more uncertain fate, the chilling prospect of a lingering demise in the cold and the dark on the muddy floor of the Barents Sea, entombed in a 13,900-tonne, 154-m-long casket of steel. “Grim is the best single word to describe their plight,” surmised Paul Beaver, a naval analyst at the London-based Janes Defense Weekly. “The lack of heat and light, the creaking caused by water pressure on the hull, the lack of good air to breathe, would all have conspired to create an atmosphere close to sheer terror.”

Those crew members among the Kursks 118-member crew who initially survived grappled with such

unrelenting, minute-by-minute fears for at least 48 hours—the last point by which the Russian navy said it could detect signs of life—and perhaps longer. But by week’s end—despite a belated but continuing rescue effort involving British and Norwegian teams of deep-sea experts equipped with a state-of-the-art

mini-submarine—Russian officials acknowledged that everyone’s worst fears appeared to have come true. “Regrettably, in effect we have crossed the critical boundary of ensuring the life of the crew,” ViceAdmiral Mikhail Motsak said on Russian television. The huge nuclear-powered submarine lay buried, its snout shattered by an apparent explosion on Aug. 12, in silt 108 m beneath the surface of the Barents Sea. And even in the face of that catastrophe, additional dangers remain. The broken vessel, pride of the once mighty Russian northern fleet, lies on an underwater shelf 150 km northwest of its home base at Severomorsk on Russia’s bleak Kola Peninsula. The ship’s twin reactors, each capable of generating 190 megawatts of energy, remain idle, but pose a constant threat of spewing a radioactive plume of poison into one of the worlds richest fishing grounds.

At least some of Capt. Gennadi Lyachin’s crew did manage to survive the

fire and flood that sank the 45-year-old naval commanders ship. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Russian navy personnel manning diving bells listened helplessly as trapped sailors hammered coded messages upon the interior hull of the submarine. But those messages grew increasingly faint; the last consisted of a weak SOS—Save Our Souls— tapped out in internationally recognized Morse code. After that, there were no further signs of life from the Kursk. But both Russian and Western naval officers pointed out that could signify nothing more than standard emergency measures practised by submariners everywhere. “The drill is to

move as little as possible to preserve oxygen and prevent the deadly buildup of carbon dioxide,” explained Royal Navy Cmdr. Alan Hoskins, a member of the seaborne British rescue team.

From the outset, estimates varied wildly on exactly how long the Kursk’s oxygen supply would last— and the final answer will likely never be known. Carol House of the British Institute of Naval Medicine pointed out that most people require a quarter-litre of oxygen every minute—no difficulty in normal air, which contains 21-per-cent oxygen. As the supply dwindled, it would also have affected the behaviour of any survivors. House said that at 15 per cent, crew members’ ability to make decisions would be impaired; at 12 per cent, they would feel “awful”; at eight per cent, they would all be unconscious.

The precise chain of events that caused the calamity remained unclear. The Kursk, commissioned in 1995, is one of the largest, most up-todate tactical submarines in the Russian fleet. Classified by NATO as an Oscar II-type craft, it was specifically de-

signed to track and destroy enemy aircraft carriers and other capital ships, utilizing an array of lethal weaponry, including an arsenal of 24 cruise missiles and 28 torpedoes. It sank while taking part in large-scale training manoeuvres with at least 10 other ships attached to Russia’s northern fleet. Exacdy how is a matter of debate. Initially, senior Russian naval officials said the submarine collided in relatively shallow waters with an as-yet-unidentified obstacle, most likely another ship. But later in the week, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the northern fleet, said the ship had been crippled by a huge explosion that appeared to have been triggered from inside. “There may be two causes of the explosion—an external impact, that is to say, a collision, or internal,” he said. As usual, the U.S. navy was closely monitoring the northern fleet’s manoeuvres. The navy’s reconnaissance ship Loyal was in the vicinity, as were at least two U.S. nuclear submarines. Shore-based intelligence-gathering facilities in Norway, less than 100 km from where the Kursk went down, were also tracking the exercises. Officials in both countries report picking up the sounds of two underwater explosions—a smaller blast followed moments later by a larger one, at roughly the same time as the Kursk was reported to have plunged to the seabed. A Norwegian seismic centre measured the second explosion at magnitude 3.5, which is equal to a mild earthquake.

The Russian public believes its navy waited too long before asking for help

Those explosions led to speculation that one of the Kursk’s torpedoes may have malfunctioned during firing, detonating the rest of the explosives stored in the vessel’s torpedo compartments.

Washington “categorically” ruled out collision with any U.S. naval craft in the area.

Whatever the cause, something suddenly ripped apart the Kursk’s forward compartments. Five hours of underwater video collected by unmanned Russian submersibles and shown to NATO officials last week revealed enormous damage, extending from the Kursk’s rounded bow all the way back to the conning tower, roughly halfway along the length of the submarine. The videotapes showed a shattered bow, a buckled foredeck, a battered conning tower and, most ominous, a gaping tear in the vessel’s hull that would have permitted massive flooding. The damage is so extensive, in fact, that it has led to fears that many of the crew perished instantly, not only in the forward torpedo chambers, but also

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in the crew quarters just behind the conning tower and the bridge just under it, where Lyachin and his senior officers would have been stationed.

The accident now appears to be the worst peacetime naval disaster in Russian history. But the submarine’s crew is not the only casualty of the tragic affair. The disaster also ignited a firestorm of recrimination, not only from grieving relatives gathered in Murmansk near the northern fleet’s headquarters, but

also from the Russian media and population at large. The swelling public anger was directed at Russia’s secretive military establishment as well as new

Russian President Vladimir Putin. The military were castigated for initially refusing to disclose the calamity, then obfuscating about its scale and, finally, hesitating for so long in calling for outside help.

For the first time since his election, Putin was forced to endure public condemnation. He was fiercely criticized for remaining on holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi throughout the affair, emerging, tanned and wearing a yellow short-sleeved shirt, five days after the Kursk sank to utter his first words of concern. He finally returned to Moscow from

Ukraine last weekend, cutting short a trip to a summit of former Soviet republics. Putin said that the reason he did not go to the rescue site was that his presence might only have proved a distraction to rescue efforts.

I But that explanation is un! likely to mollify critics. The I plight of the crew transfixed I and appalled a nation that is I already no stranger throughout its history to controversy and death. “The fate of the 118 sailors is having a bigger popular impact than the death of more than 2,500 Russian soldiers in Chechnya,” said Russian human-rights activist Andrei Mironov. No one may ever know whether an earlier call for international help might have helped save any lives aboard the Kursk. But along with the grief and sorrow for the dead and their families, the implications for Russia’s beleaguered government and military are certain to be widespread. For many Russians, the Kursk will live on—as a tragic symbol of their tenuous place in a fast-changing world, and the uncertain manner with which they face it. Ei]