Wreck of K-141 Kursk in a floating dock at Roslyakovo
|Date||12 August 2000|
|Time||11:29:34 a.m. – 11:31:48 a.m. (UTC+04:00)|
|Cause||Faulty weld on a 65–76 "Kit" practice torpedo, leading to an explosion of high-test peroxide and secondary detonation of 5 to 7 torpedo warheads|
|Outcome||Loss of the ship, crew, headquarters personnel|
The sinking of the nuclear-powered Oscar-class submarine Kursk (Russian: Project 949A Антей Atomnaya Podvodnaya Lodka "Kursk" (APL "Kursk")) took place during the first major Russian naval exercise in more than ten years, in the Barents Sea on 12 August 2000, killing all 118 personnel on board. Nearby ships felt the initial explosion and a second, much larger, explosion, yet the Russian Navy did not realise that an accident had occurred and did not initiate a search for the sub for more than six hours. By the time the Navy declared an emergency 11 hours later, the crew were – unknown to anyone – all dead. Because the submarine's emergency rescue buoy had been intentionally disabled, it took more than 16 hours to locate the sunken boat.
Over four days, the Russian Navy failed to attach four different diving bells and submersibles to the escape hatch. Its response was criticised as slow and inept. Officials misled and manipulated the public and news media, as they refused help from other governments. President Vladimir Putin initially continued his vacation at a seaside resort; he only authorised the Russian Navy to accept British and Norwegian offers of assistance five days after the incident. Seven days after the sinking, Norwegian divers finally opened a hatch to the escape trunk in the boat's flooded ninth compartment to find no survivors. The Government of Russia and the Russian Navy came under intense criticism over the incident.
The official investigation, after most of the wreck was raised along with analysis of pieces of debris, concluded that the crew of Kursk was preparing to load a dummy 65–76 "Kit" torpedo when a faulty weld in its casing leaked high-test peroxide (HTP), causing the torpedo's kerosene fuel to explode. The explosion blew off both the inner and outer tube doors, ignited a fire, destroyed the bulkhead between the first and second compartments, damaged the control room, and incapacitated or killed the control room crew. The torpedo manufacturer challenged this hypothesis, insisting that its design would prevent the kind of event described. Vice-Admiral Valery Ryazantsev drew attention to systemic faults in the Russian Navy, such as the risky use of highly volatile HTP torpedoes known to have caused the sinking of HMS Sidon. Ryazantsev accused the Russian navy of failing to properly train the crew, who did not appear to have properly closed the inner torpedo room safety door designed to protect the rest of the submarine. Eventually, the commission concluded that poor oversight, budget cuts, and incomplete maintenance inspections contributed to the explosion.
Two minutes and fifteen seconds after the initial blast, the sub was on the bottom when the intense initial fire triggered the detonation of between five and seven torpedo warheads. The second explosion was equivalent to over 2 tonnes of TNT. It collapsed the bulkheads between the first three compartments and all the decks, tore a large hole in the hull, destroyed compartments four and five, and killed everyone still alive forward of the nuclear reactor in the fifth compartment. The nuclear reactors shut down safely. Following salvage operations, analysts concluded that 23 sailors in the sixth through ninth compartments took refuge in the small ninth compartment and survived for more than six hours. As oxygen ran low, crew members attempted to replace a potassium superoxide chemical oxygen cartridge, which accidentally fell into the oily sea water and exploded on contact. The resulting fire killed several crew members and triggered a flash fire that consumed the remaining oxygen, suffocating the remaining survivors. Lacking information, families of the victims engaged in an angry and volatile meeting with newly elected President Vladimir Putin. The video coverage of the meeting was sanitised for Russian audiences but leaked to international media, later shocking Russian audiences when they saw footage of a mother being forcibly sedated before she was removed from the meeting.
The following year, a Dutch team was contracted to raise the hull. Using newly developed lifting technologies, they recovered all but the bow, including the remains of 115 sailors, who were buried in Russia. More than two years after the sinking, the Russian government completed a 133-volume, top-secret investigation of the disaster. They released only a four-page summary through Rossiyskaya Gazeta, that revealed "stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment", and "negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement". Moreover, they concluded that the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed and that the Russian Navy was completely unprepared to respond to the disaster.
- 1 Naval exercise
- 2 Rescue response
- 2.1 Official government response
- 2.2 Rumours among family members
- 2.3 Foreign assistance refused
- 2.4 Russian rescue efforts falter
- 2.5 First official announcement
- 2.6 Collision initially blamed
- 2.7 Weather delays efforts
- 2.8 British and Norwegian help
- 2.9 Russians claim collision with NATO submarine
- 2.10 Criticism of government response
- 2.11 Putin meets with families
- 2.12 Mother forcibly sedated
- 2.13 Putin blames media
- 2.14 Family compensation announced
- 3 Official inquiry results
- 4 Alternative explanations
- 5 Salvage operation
- 6 Aftermath
- 7 In popular culture
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
On the morning of 12 August 2000, Kursk was participating in the "Summer-X" exercise, the first large-scale naval exercise planned by the Russian Navy in more than a decade, and also its first since the fall of the Soviet Union. It included 30 ships and three submarines.
Kursk had recently won a citation for its excellent performance and been recognised as having the best submarine crew in the Northern Fleet. Although it was an exercise, Kursk loaded a full complement of conventional combat weapons. It was one of the few submarine boats authorised to carry a combat load at all times. This included 18 SS-N-16 "Stallion" anti-ship missiles and 24 SS-N-19/P-700 Granit "Shipwreck" cruise missiles that were designed to defeat the best naval air defences.
Kursk had a mythical standing. It was reputedly unsinkable and there were claims it would withstand a direct hit from a torpedo. The outer hull was constructed using 8-millimetre (0.31 in) steel plate covered by up to 80 millimetres (3.1 in) of rubber, which minimised other submarines' or surface vessels' ability to detect the submarine. The inner pressure hull was made of high quality 50-millimetre (2.0 in) steel plate. The two hulls were separated by a 1-to-2-metre (3 ft 3 in to 6 ft 7 in) gap. The inner hull was divided into nine water-tight compartments. The boat was as long as two jumbo jets.
At 08:51 local time, Kursk requested permission to conduct a torpedo training launch and received the response "Dobro" ("Good"). After considerable delay, the submarine was set to fire two dummy torpedoes at the Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy. At 11:29 local time, the torpedo room crew loaded a practice Type 65 "Kit" torpedo, (Russian: tolstushka, or "fat girl", because of its size), without a warhead, into Kursk's number 4 torpedo tube on the starboard side. It was 10.7 metres (35 ft) long and weighed 5 tonnes (4.9 long tons; 5.5 short tons).
Initial seismic event detected
At 11:29:34 (07:29:50 GMT), seismic detectors at the Norwegian seismic array (NORSAR) and in other locations around the world recorded a seismic event of magnitude 1.5 on the Richter scale. The location was fixed at coordinates , north-east of Murmansk, approximately 250 kilometres (160 mi) from Norway, and 80 kilometres (50 mi) from the Kola Peninsula.
At 11:31:48, two minutes and 14 seconds after the first, a second event, measuring 4.2 on the Richter scale, or 250 times larger than the first, was registered on seismographs across northern Europe and was detected as far away as Alaska. The second explosion was equivalent to 2–3 tons of TNT.
The seismic data showed that the explosion occurred at the same depth as the sea bed. The seismic event, triangulated at , showed that the boat had moved about 400 metres (1,300 ft) from the location of the initial explosion. It was enough time for the submarine to sink 108 metres (354��ft) and remain on the sea floor for a short while.
The crew of the submarine Karelia detected the explosion but the captain assumed that it was part of the exercise. Aboard Petr Velikiy, the target of the practice launch, the crew detected a hydro-acoustic signal characteristic of an underwater explosion and felt their hull shudder. They reported the phenomena to fleet headquarters but their report was ignored.
The scheduled time period for Kursk to complete the practice torpedo firing expired at 13:30 without any contact from the sub. Accustomed to the frequent failure of communications equipment, Fleet Commander Admiral Vyacheslav Alekseyevich Popov aboard Petr Velikiy was not initially alarmed.:36 The ship dispatched a helicopter to look for Kursk but it was unable to locate the sub on the surface; this was reported to Popov.
The Northern Fleet duty officer then notified the head of the fleet's search and rescue forces, Captain Alexander Teslenko, to stand by for orders. Teslenko's primary rescue ship was a 20-year-old former lumber carrier, Mikhail Rudnitsky, which had been converted to support submersible rescue operations. Teslenko notified the ship's captain to be ready to depart on one hour's notice. Berthed at the primary Northern Fleet base at Severomorsk, the ship was equipped with two AS-32 and AS-34 Priz-class deep-submergence rescue vehicles, a diving bell, underwater video cameras, lifting cranes, and other specialised gear. But she was not equipped with stabilisers capable of keeping the vessel in position during stormy weather and could only lower her rescue vessels in calm seas.:72 The Russian Navy had previously operated two India-class submarines, each of which carried a pair of Poseidon class DSRVs that could reach a depth of 693 metres (2,274 ft), but due to a lack of funds the vessels had been waiting in a St. Petersburg yard for repairs since 1994.
Early in the evening, more than six hours after the explosion, Kursk failed to complete a scheduled communication check at 18:00. The Northern Fleet command became concerned and tried to contact Kursk. After repeated failures, at 18:30 they began a search and rescue operation, dispatching aircraft to locate the submarine, which again failed to locate the boat on the surface. At 17:00, an Ilyushin 38 aircraft was dispatched and looked for Kursk for three hours without spotting anything.:74 At 22:30, the Northern Fleet declared an emergency, and the exercise was stopped. Between fifteen and twenty-two vessels of the Northern Fleet, including about 3,000 sailors, began searching for the submarine. The Mikhail Rudnitsky left port at 00:30.
Official government response
The Russian Navy initially downplayed the incident. Late on Saturday night, nine hours after the boat sank, Northern Fleet commander Admiral Popov ordered the first search for the submarine. Twelve hours after it sank, Popov informed the Kremlin, but Minister of Defence Igor Sergeyev did not notify Putin until 07:00 Sunday morning. Sergeyev "did not recommend" that Putin visit the disaster site.
On Sunday, after Popov already knew that Kursk was missing and presumed sunk, he briefed reporters on the progress of the exercise. He said the exercise had been a resounding success and spoke highly of the entire operation.:149:23
Rumours among family members
Early on Sunday morning at the Vidyaevo Naval Base, rumours began to circulate among family members of Kursk's crew that something was wrong. A telephone operator handled an unusual volume of calls and she overheard that a submarine was in trouble and then the submarine's name. The base was very small and news spread quickly. The wives and family members exchanged news, but nobody had more information. Kursk had previously been regarded as unsinkable and so family members could not believe the worst of the rumours. They hoped that the submarine was just temporarily unable to communicate. The deputy base commander reassured the women that the headquarters office was half empty and that the officers present were just "passing the time.":87
Foreign assistance refused
On the afternoon of the explosion, even before the Kremlin had been informed of the submarine's sinking, U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Defense Secretary William Cohen were told that Kursk had sunk. Once officially informed, the British government, along with France, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Norway offered help, and the United States offered the use of one of its two deep submergence rescue vehicles, but the Russian government refused all foreign assistance. Minister of Defence Igor Sergeyev told the American Embassy that the rescue was well under way.:152 The Russian Navy told reporters that a rescue was imminent.
Russian rescue efforts falter
At 04:50 on Sunday, personnel aboard Petr Velikiy found two anomalies on the seabed.[clarification needed] At 09:00 Mikhail Rudnitsky arrived at the location. While setting anchor, its crew interpreted an acoustic sound as an SOS from the submarine, but concluded this was produced by the anchor chain striking the anchor hole. At 11:30 on Sunday, 13 August, the crew of Mikhail Rudnitsky began preparing to lower the AS-34, which entered the water at 17:30. At 18:30, at a depth of 100 metres (330 ft) and at a speed of 2 knots (3.7 km/h; 2.3 mph), the AS-34 reported colliding with an object, and through a porthole the crew reported seeing a propeller and stern stabiliser. The AS-34 was damaged and surfaced, so the crew of Mikhail Rudnitsky began preparing the AS-32 for operations.
At 22:40, the AS-32 entered the water and began searching for Kursk but was given an incorrect heading by personnel aboard Petr Velikiy and was unable to locate the submarine. Crew aboard Mikhail Rudnitsky tried to contact Kursk and briefly thought they heard an acoustic SOS signal, but this was determined to be of biological origin. They reported the sounds to Petr Velikiy. The AS-32 returned to the surface at 01:00 on Monday morning, 14 August.
The salvage tug Nikolay Chiker (SB 131) arrived early in the rescue operation. It used its deep water camera equipment to obtain the first images of the wrecked submarine. Video camera pictures showed severe damage from the sub's bow to its conning tower. They also revealed that Kursk was listing at a 60-degree angle and down 5–7 degrees by the bow. The bow had ploughed about 22 metres (72 ft) deep into the clay seabed, at a depth of 108 metres (354 ft). The periscope was raised, indicating that the accident occurred at a depth of less than 20 metres (66 ft).
The AS-34 was repaired and was launched at 05:00 on Monday. At 06:50, the AS-34 located Kursk and attempted to attach to the aft escape trunk over Kursk's ninth compartment, but its batteries were depleted and the crew was forced to surface to recharge the batteries. Winds increased, blowing 10–12 metres per second (19–23 knots) to 15–27 metres per second (29–52 knots), and the waves rose to 3–4 points (4–8 feet, 1.2–2.4 m), forcing the Russians to suspend rescue operations.
First official announcement
The first official announcement of the accident was made by the Russians on Monday, 14 August. They told the media that Kursk had experienced "minor technical difficulties" on Sunday. They stated that the submarine had "descended to the ocean floor", that they had established contact with the crew, were pumping air and power to the boat, and that "everyone on board is alive." The BBC reported that the Kursk crew "had been forced to ground" the submarine because it "[had] broken down during exercises" but rescue crews were "in radio contact with surface vessels."
Collision initially blamed
Senior officers in the Russian Navy offered a variety of explanations for the accident. Four days after Kursk sank, Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief and Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated the accident had been caused by a serious collision. Klebanov said the submarine may have hit an old World War II mine. He also said that almost all of the sailors had died before the vessel hit bottom.
The Russian government convened a commission, chaired by vice-premier Ilya Klebanov, on 14 August, two days after Kursk sank. Nearly half of the commission members were officials with a stake in the outcome of the investigation, and independent investigators were not invited to take part, giving the appearance that their findings might not be impartial.:32
Weather delays efforts
Bad weather, 3.7-metre (12 ft) waves, strong undersea currents, and limited visibility impaired the rescue crews' ability to conduct operations on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday Mikhail Rudnitsky lowered a diving bell twice but were unable to connect to the sub. They then tried and failed to manoeuvre a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) onto the rescue hatch.
At 20:00 Tuesday, AS-34 was launched again but was damaged when it struck a boom as it was being lowered into the sea. It was brought back aboard, repaired, and relaunched at 21:10. On Tuesday, 15 August, three days after the sinking, the crane ship PK-7500 arrived with the more manoeuvrable Project 18270 Bester-type DSRV (AC-36). But the weather prevented the PK-7500 from launching the DSRV, and the rescue team decided to launch the submersible near the coast and tow it to the rescue site with a salvage tug.
On Wednesday, 16 August, at 00:20, AS-34 attempted to attach to the ninth compartment escape hatch twice but was unsuccessful. It surfaced and as it was being lifted onto the deck its propulsion system was seriously damaged. The crew of Mikhail Rudnitsky elected to cannibalise the AS-32 to repair the AS-34. Rescue operations were suspended while the repairs were made. PK-7500 arrived from the coast where it had launched its DSRV. It repeatedly lowered the rescue vessel 110 metres (360 ft) to the submarine but it was unable to latch onto an escape hatch. One of the rescue capsules was damaged by the storm.
On Thursday at 12:00, Popov reported to the General Staff of the Navy that there had not been an explosion aboard Kursk, the sub was intact on the seafloor, and that an "external influence" may have caused a leak between the first and second compartment. On Thursday the Russian Priz DSRV made another attempt to reach the aft area of the submarine but was unable to create the vacuum seal necessary to attach to the escape trunk. Western media criticised the Russians' 32-hour response time; however, the standard for deploying a recovery vessel in 2000 was 72 hours.
The rescue ship Altay attempted to attach a Kolokol diving bell to the sub but was unsuccessful. Russian Navy Headquarters in Moscow told media that rescuers had heard tapping from within the boat's hull, spelling "SOS ... water", although the possibility of hearing tapping through the double hull was later discounted, and other reports said the sounds had been misinterpreted or even made up.
Rescue divers did not attempt to tap on the hull to signal potential survivors acoustically. However, video evidence seems to suggest otherwise as it shows Norwegian divers tapping on the aft rescue hatch while the rescue part of the operation was still underway.
Fragments of both the outer and inner hulls were found nearby, including a piece of Kursk's nose weighing 5 tonnes (4.9 long tons; 5.5 short tons), indicating a large explosion in the forward torpedo room.
British and Norwegian help
Private media and state-owned Russian newspapers criticised the navy's refusal to accept international assistance. Five days after the accident on 17 August 2000, President Putin accepted the British and Norwegian governments' offer of assistance. Six teams of British and Norwegian divers arrived on Friday, 18 August. The Russian 328th Expeditionary rescue squad, part of the Navy's office of Search and Rescue, also provided divers. On 19 August at 20:00, the Norwegian ship Normand Pioneer arrived with the British rescue submarine LR5 on board, seven days after the disaster.
On Sunday 20 August, the Norwegians lowered a ROV to the submarine. They found that the first 18 metres (59 ft) of the boat was a mass of twisted metal and debris.
Russian Navy officials imposed specific constraints that restricted the Norwegians divers to work on the stern of the boat, specifically the escape hatch over compartment nine and an air control valve connected to the rescue trunk. The Norwegian deep-sea divers protested against the restrictions which they felt impeded their rescue operations.
When the divers attempted to open the air control valve, it would not move. Russian experts on one of the most technologically advanced submarines in the Russian fleet told the divers that they must open the valve counter-clockwise or they would break it. The divers finally went against the experts' advice and tried turning it clockwise, which worked.
The divers tried to use the arms of the ROV to open the hatch but were unsuccessful until the morning of Monday, 21 August, when they found the rescue trunk full of water. That morning, they used a custom tool to open the internal hatch of the rescue trunk, releasing a large volume of air from the ninth compartment. Divers lowered a video camera on a rod into the compartment and found several bodies.
The salvage companies agreed that the Norwegian divers would cut the holes in the hull but only Russian divers would enter the submarine. The Norwegian divers cut a hole in the hull of the eighth compartment to gain access, using a cutting machine that shoots a high-velocity water-and-cutting-grit mix at 15,000 pounds per square inch (100,000 kPa) pressure. The Russian divers entered the wreck and opened a bulkhead hatch to compartment nine.
They found that dust and ashes inside compartment nine severely restricted visibility. As they gradually worked their way inside the compartment and down two levels, Warrant Officer Sergei Shmygin found the remains of Captain-lieutenant Dmitry Kolesnikov. All of the casualties had clearly been badly burned. The divers cut additional holes in the hull over the third and fourth compartments. The Russian divers removed secret documents and eventually recovered a total of 12 bodies from the ninth compartment. This contradicted earlier statements made by senior Russian officials that all of the submariners had died before the submarine hit the bottom. They also found the boat's log, but then had to suspend work because of severe weather. The rescue teams conducted ongoing measurements of radiation levels inside and outside the submarine but none of the readings exceeded normal ranges.
On 21 August, after the Norwegian divers confirmed that no one was alive in the ninth compartment, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Northern Fleet, Mikhail Motsak, announced to the public that the Kursk was flooded and all of its crewmembers had died. Admiral Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, also addressed the public in a televised broadcast (at the end of which he removed his navy beret) and asked the Kursk family members for forgiveness: "...forgive me for not bringing back your boys."
Additional plans were made to continue to remove the bodies, but the Russian Navy could not agree on a contract with a foreign company, and the families of those who died on the submarine protested that they did not want additional lives put at risk to bring up the dead. On 22 August, President Putin issued an executive order declaring 23 August a day of mourning.
Russians claim collision with NATO submarine
On Monday 14 August, Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated the accident had been caused by a serious collision with a NATO submarine, although he gave no evidence to support his statement. Senior commanders of the Russian Navy repeated this story for more than two years after the disaster. Many who wanted to sustain negative relations between Russia and the West supported this scenario.
During the exercise, the Russians required each of their submarines to stay within a specified area. This was designed to eliminate the possibility of a collision and to allow surface ships to detect the presence of a Western spy sub.
On 29 or 30 August 2000, an official government commission tasked with investigating the disaster announced that the likely cause of the sinking was a "strong 'dynamic external impact' corresponding with the 'first event'", probably a collision with a foreign submarine or a large surface ship, or striking a World War II mine. They cited that the exercise had been monitored by two American Los Angeles-class submarines—USS Memphis and Toledo—and the Royal Navy Swiftsure-class submarine HMS Splendid. When the exercise was cancelled due to the accident, they put in at European ports.
Q: Russians are suggesting that one of the possible reasons is a collision with a NATO or American submarine, they are asking to let them, well, have a look at a couple of United States submarines and the answer from the American side is no; so I ask, why not? And what is your own explanation of that particular accident. Thank you.
A: I know that all our ships are operational and could not possibly have been involved in any kind of contact with the Russian submarine. So frankly, there is no need for inspections, since ours are completely operational, there was no contact whatsoever with the Kursk.
While the official inquiry was still under way, on 25 October 2000, Commander of the Northern Fleet Popov and his Chief of Staff Motsak were interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. They repeated the theory that Kursk collided with a NATO submarine shadowing the exercise. Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated once again on 25 October that he was 80 percent certain the accident was caused by a collision with a foreign submarine.:22 There had been 11 collisions between submarines in the Barents Sea since 1967, and the Russian navy produced video footage of the wreck that they claimed showed evidence that this too was a collision.
On 5 November, a representative of the Northern Fleet General Staff told the Russian NTV television station that the sinking was caused by a collision, and Motsak repeated this assertion on 17 November in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia. They insisted that an American submarine was closely shadowing Kursk and had caused the collision by negligently getting too close. The Russian Navy produced satellite imagery of the U.S. submarine Memphis docked at a Norwegian naval base in Bergen just after the alleged collision and claimed this proved the submarine had surfaced for repairs, but the authenticity of the photos was never proven.
But geophysicists who analysed the seismic signals concluded that the initial sound recorded was triggered by an explosion and not a collision with another vessel. The seismic waveforms of the second event, known to be from the explosion of several torpedo warheads, also generated a high-frequency bubble signature characteristic of an underwater explosion of approximately 3–7 tons of TNT. When they compared the second event with the first, they concluded that the first event was also the explosion of a torpedo. Britain's Blacknest seismic monitoring station, which studies seismic signals generated by underground nuclear explosions and earthquakes, identified two distinct explosions. They determined that the two shockwaves were a perfect match and consistent with a torpedo explosion.
Criticism of government response
While the rescue crews repeatedly failed to attach to the rescue trunk and to contact potential survivors aboard the submarine, President Putin was shown enjoying himself in casual dress on a summer holiday at a villa on the Black Sea. His seeming indifference outraged the families of the Kursk sailors and many other Russians. Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian wrote:
For President Vladimir Putin, the Kursk crisis was not merely a human tragedy, it was a personal PR catastrophe. Twenty-four hours after the submarine's disappearance, as Russian naval officials made bleak calculations about the chances of the 118 men on board, Putin was filmed enjoying himself, shirtsleeves rolled up, hosting a barbecue at his holiday villa on the Black Sea.
The Russian media was extremely critical of the government's handling of the sinking. Images of angry family members demanding information or waiting anxiously at the dock for news were shown on media worldwide. Some relatives said they only learned of the disaster from the public media:108 or from conflicting rumours circulating the navy base.:87 They complained they did not receive any information from the government on the status of the disaster or rescue efforts until Wednesday, five days after the sinking. Some could not even confirm whether their family members were among the crew on board the boat. The government refused to release a list of the missing sailors even to the families of those aboard until a Pravda reporter paid an officer 18,000 rubles for the list. Even then, the government tried to prohibit reporters from contacting family members.:37
The continued problems the rescuers had reaching survivors and ongoing conflicting information about the cause of the incident inflamed Russian public opinion. Media described the Russian government's response to the disaster as "technically inept" and their stories as "totally unreliable".
Putin meets with families
President Putin had been advised by the military from the start of the disaster that they had the situation under control and that he did not need to intervene. He was told that there was a strong possibility that a foreign vessel had caused the accident and that Russia should not accept help from foreign powers.:154 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 favourable ratings dropped dramatically. The President's response appeared callous and the government's actions looked incompetent.
On Tuesday, 22 August, 10 days after the sinking, Putin met at 8 p.m. in the Vidyayevo navy base officers' club and cultural centre with about 400–600:154:105 angry and grief-filled residents of the navy base and about 350 family members of the Kursk's crew.:107 The meeting was closed and access was tightly controlled. Two Russian journalists from Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Kommersant, who posed as family members, witnessed hysterical widows and mothers howling at Putin, demanding to know why they were receiving so much conflicting information and who was going to be punished for the deaths of their family members. They cried::107
- Do you believe our men are still alive?
- Why have you murdered our lads?
- When would the bodies of the submariners be brought home?
- When will we get them back, dead or alive?
- Who are you going to punish for their deaths, and how?
German television channel RTL provided the Russian national daily newspaper Kommersant with an unedited transcript.:155 The transcript revealed that Putin told the families that Admiral of the Fleet Vladimir Kuroyedov had agreed to accept foreign assistance as soon as it was offered on Wednesday, 16 August, but he was shouted down as soon as he offered this explanation. The family members knew from media reports that foreign assistance had been offered on Monday.:108 Up to this point, family members had received 1,000 (rubles, about USD$37 in 2000) in compensation, and Putin offered the families additional compensation equivalent to ten years' salary, about US$7,000 in 2000.:108
Mother forcibly sedated
The Russian state channel RTR was the only media granted access. They broadcast a heavily edited version of the meeting that only showed the president speaking, eliminating many emotional and contentious encounters between the President and family members. Their single TV camera fed its signal to a satellite truck on loan to RTR from the German TV Company RTL, and RTL recorded the entire event.:155 During the meeting, Nadezhda Tylik, the mother of Kursk submariner Lt. Sergei Tylik, was extremely emotional and interrupted the meeting. She harangued Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Klebanov, accusing them of lying to the family members. She told them, "You better shoot yourselves now! We won't let you live, bastards!" When she would not be quiet, a nurse in civilian apparel behind her forcibly injected her through her clothing with a sedative. She shortly thereafter lost the ability to speak and was carried out. Immediately after his wife was given the injection, Tylik's husband said he had asked the woman to give his wife the drug "because she was prone to excessive emotions". Four months later she revealed that her husband had lied about the injection to the public to "save my nerves" and that he, in fact, "did not ask for help". Tylik later stated, "The injection was done to shut my mouth. Immediately after it, I just lost the ability to speak and was carried out."
The whole scene was captured by the TV crew, although it was not televised within Russia. The rest of the world was able to see officials remove her from the meeting.:36 Tylik later criticised President Putin because he "did not answer direct questions" at the meeting. "Maybe he did not know what to say. But we did not receive concrete answers to concrete questions," she said. Tylik told the St. Petersburg Times that she will go to any lengths to learn the truth about the submarine disaster "They told us lies the whole time, and even now we are unable to get any information," she said.
The sedation concerned people in Russia as well as the West that the former Soviet Union was returning to its Cold War-era methods of silencing dissent. Tylik said that he[who?] had told her six days before the disaster that the submarine had "'death onboard', but he didn't explain what he meant." "I am sure that the commanders of the Northern Fleet knew that the torpedoes were not in order. Those who are guilty must be punished." Navy officials in Vidyayevo later confirmed to The Times and to The St. Petersburg Times that she was given a sedative. "We've been giving sedatives to relatives since this began, and it is not such a big deal as you make it out to be in the West," said an officer who would not identify himself. "We are simply protecting the relatives from undue pain – it was for her own protection."
Journalist Andrey Kolesnikov, who had been present at Putin's meeting with the families, described his experience in a 2015 documentary titled President. He said when he watched Putin talk to the families, he had never felt such an intense atmosphere of pain and anger in his entire life.
I honestly thought they would tear him apart ... There was such a heavy atmosphere there, such a clot of hatred, and despair, and pain ... I never felt anything like it anywhere in my entire life ... All the questions were aimed at this single man ...
Putin blames media
In response to the avalanche of criticism, Minister of Defence Sergeyev and senior commanders of the Navy and the Northern Fleet offered Putin their resignations, but he refused to accept them.:160
Putin lashed back at the press, who had been severely critical of his personal response and the entire government's handling of a national tragedy. During the meeting with the crew's relatives, he loudly blamed the oligarchs, who owned most of the country's non-government media, for the poor state of Russia's military. Putin told the family members, "There are people in television today who ... over the last 10 years destroyed the very army and fleet where people are dying now ... They stole money, they bought the media, and they're manipulating public opinion." When relatives asked why the government had waited so long before accepting foreign assistance, Putin said the media had lied. He shouted to the assembled families, "They're lying. They're lying. They're lying." Putin threatened to punish the media owners and counter their influence through alternative "honest and objective" media. He scornfully derided their ownership of property abroad. "They'd better sell their villas on the Mediterranean coast of France or Spain. Then they might have to explain why all this property is registered in false names under front law-firms. Perhaps we would ask them where they got the money."
In a speech to the Russian people the day after his meeting with the families, Putin continued his furious attack on the Russian media, accusing them of lying and discrediting the country. He said they were trying to "exploit this misfortune ... to gain political capital."
Family compensation announced
On the same day as Putin's broadcast, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, head of a special commission, announced that the families of the Kursk sailors would receive not only 10 years' salary, but free housing in the Russian city of their choice, free college education for their children, and free counselling.:114 With the addition of other donations received from across the world, the families received about US$35,000 in payments.:114
Official inquiry results
On 26 July 2002, almost two years later, the government commission and Russia's Prosecutor General, Vladimir Ustinov, announced that the hydrogen peroxide fuel in the dummy torpedo inside the fourth torpedo launcher set off the initial explosion that sank Kursk.
Ustinov released a 133-volume top-secret report in August 2002, two years after the disaster. The government published a four-page summary in Rossiyskaya Gazeta that 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.
Initial blast damage
The bulkhead between the first and second compartment was traversed by a circular 47-centimetre (19 in) air conditioning duct. The bulkhead should have arrested the blast wave, but in keeping with common Russian submarine practice, the pressurised valve in the ventilation system that traversed the bulkhead was left open to minimise the change in pressure during a weapon's launch. The initial blast set off a fire that was later estimated to have burned at 2,700 °C (4,890 °F). The government report concluded that the initial explosion and fire in the torpedo room compartment immediately killed all seven crew members within.
The open valve in the ventilation system allowed the huge blast wave and possibly the fire and toxic smoke to enter the second and perhaps the third and fourth compartments as well. Although the sub was at periscope depth with her radio antennas extended, no one in the command post was able to send a distress signal or press a single button that would initiate an emergency ballast tank blow and bring the submarine to the surface. All 36 men in the command post located in the second compartment were immediately incapacitated by the blast wave and likely killed.
Two minutes and 14 seconds after the first explosion in the torpedo compartment, the fire set off a second explosion of 5–7 combat-ready torpedo warheads. Acoustic data from Pyotr Velikiy was later analysed and found to indicate an explosion of about 7 torpedo warheads in rapid succession. A single Type 65 "Kit" torpedo carries a large 450-kilogram (990 lb) warhead.
While the sub was submerged, 78 crew were normally assigned to the first four compartments and 49 to the rear five compartments.:3 Although Kursk was designed to withstand external pressure of depths of up to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft), the second internal explosion tore a 2-square-metre (22 sq ft) hole in the boat's hull, opening the first through fourth compartments to the sea. Water poured in at 90,000 litres (3,200 cu ft) per second. The explosion collapsed the first three compartments and all of the decks. In addition to the crew in those compartments, there were five officers from 7th SSGN Division Headquarters and two design engineers on board to observe the performance of a new battery in the USET-80 torpedo, set to be launched second. Anyone who remained alive in those compartments was killed by the second explosion.
Practice torpedo blamed
The government report confirmed that Kursk had been sunk by a torpedo explosion caused when high-test peroxide (HTP), a form of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide, leaked from cracks in the torpedo's casing.
HTP is normally stable until it comes in contact with a catalyst. It then expands 5,000 times in volume extremely rapidly, acting as an oxidiser, generating large volumes of steam and oxygen. Ordinarily, the oxygen combines with kerosene fuel in the torpedo engine to propel the missile at higher speed and greater range than conventional torpedoes.:34 Investigators concluded that the leaking HTP had catalytically decomposed when it came in contact with copper commonly found in the bronze and brass used to manufacture Kursk's torpedo tubes. The resulting overpressure ruptured the torpedo's kerosene fuel tank and caused an explosion that was registered as a weak seismic event on detectors hundreds of kilometres away. Once HTP begins oxidising, it is impossible to stop until the fuel is exhausted.
Analysis revealed that when the 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) of concentrated high-test peroxide and 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of kerosene exploded, the internal torpedo tube cover and the external tube door were blown off, opening the torpedo room to the sea. Salvage crews located a piece of the number four torpedo hatch on the seabed 50 metres (160 ft) behind the main wreckage. Its position, distance, and direction relative to the rest of the submarine indicated that it was deposited there as a result of the first explosion in that tube.
The fuel in the torpedoes carried by Kursk was inexpensive and very powerful. Torpedoes using HTP had been in use since the 1950s, but other navies stopped using them because of the danger inherent in their design. HMS Sidon sank in 1955, killing 13 sailors, when an experimental torpedo containing HTP exploded as it was being loaded.
According to an article that briefly appeared on Thursday 17 August 2000 on the website of the official newspaper of the Russian Defence Ministry, Krasnaya Zvezda, Kursk had been refitted in 1998—four years after it was commissioned—to carry torpedoes fuelled using the cheap HTP. The article reported that some specialists in the Russian Navy opposed use of the HTP-fuelled torpedoes because they were volatile and dangerous. The story did not appear in the print edition on Friday 18 August. Instead, the article was replaced with another that speculated the submarine had collided with an "unidentified object". The change was likely due to political pressure.:23 Vice-premier Ilya Klebanov, chair of the government commission investigating the accident, had a vested interest in suggesting the disaster had been caused by a collision with a NATO vessel. As head of the defence industries, over the objections of some officers, he had promoted use of the liquid-fuelled torpedoes over safer, more-expensive silver-zinc battery-powered torpedoes.:23
Faulty weld identified
The government's final report found that the officers who had issued the order approving use of the HTP torpedoes did not have the authority to issue that order. The dummy torpedo was ten years old and some of its parts had exceeded their service life. Several sources said that one of the practice torpedoes had been dropped during transport, possibly leading to a crack in the casing, but that the weapon was put aboard the submarine anyway.:23 The crane that would normally have been used to load the missiles was, as usual, out of order, and another had to be brought in, delaying the loading process. This also made the possibility of removing a damaged torpedo more difficult.:23
Personnel who had loaded the practice torpedoes the day before the exercise noticed that the rubber seals were leaking fuel and notified junior officers of the issue, but they took no action because the exercise was so important to the Russian Navy. Even though the leaks on the dummy torpedoes were detected, the rubber seals were not inspected before the exercise.:35 The crew was also supposed to follow a very strict procedure while preparing the practice HTP torpedo for firing.
Maintenance records revealed that the 65–76 "Kit" practice torpedo carried by Kursk came from a batch of ten manufactured in 1990, six of which were rejected due to faulty welding. An investigation revealed that because the torpedoes were not intended to carry warheads, the welds had not been inspected as carefully as welds on torpedoes carrying warheads. When salvage crews finally recovered the remains of the torpedo and the launch tube, analysis determined that both bore signs of distortion and heat damage that were consistent with an explosion near the middle of the torpedo, very close to an essential welded joint. The official conclusion of the commission was that a faulty weld had led to the explosion.
Escape capsule inaccessible
In an emergency, personnel in the rear compartments were to move forward to the third compartment along with those in the forward compartments and enter a detachable rescue capsule in the sail (or conning tower), which was capable of evacuating the entire crew. Alternatively, there was also an escape trunk in the first compartment, but the explosion and fire rendered use of it impossible. The rescue capsule in the third compartment was inaccessible, even if it was still usable.
Shutdown of nuclear reactors
The fifth compartment that contained the boat's two nuclear reactors was built to withstand larger forces than other interior bulkheads. Like the exterior hull, these bulkheads were designed to withstand pressure up to depths of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft). The reactors were additionally encased in 13 centimetres (5.1 in) of steel and resiliently mounted to absorb shocks in excess of 50g. The bulkheads of the fifth compartment withstood both explosions, allowing the two reactors to shut down automatically and prevent a nuclear meltdown and widespread contamination of the sea.
Automated recordings disabled
The fifth compartment contained the nuclear reactors and equipment that automatically recorded the operating activity of the boat. Twenty-two recordings were analysed by specialists from the St. Petersburg Center of Speech Technologies. They discovered that the system had been turned off the day of the accident in violation of procedure.
Rescue buoy disabled
Kursk was equipped with an emergency rescue buoy on top of compartment seven that was designed to automatically deploy when it detected any of a variety of emergency conditions like a fire or a rapid pressure change. It was intended to float to the surface and send a signal that would help rescuers locate the stricken vessel. Some reports said that the buoy had repeatedly malfunctioned and had been welded in place. In fact, investigators learned that Kursk had been deployed to the Mediterranean during the summer of 1999 to monitor the U.S. fleet responding to the Kosovo War. Russian navy officers feared that the buoy might accidentally deploy, revealing the submarine's position to the U.S. fleet. They ordered the buoy to be disabled and it was still inoperative when the sub sank.
No charges filed
Despite the many lapses in procedures and equipment, Ustinov said no charges would be filed because the disaster was caused by a technical malfunction and blame could not be placed on specific individuals. He said that all of the sailors had died within eight hours and none of them could have been rescued in the time available. At a news conference announcing the end of the official inquiry, he absolved the torpedo's manufacturer of any fault. "Those who designed the torpedo couldn't foresee the possibility of its explosion." He also said there was no evidence that the torpedo had been damaged when it was loaded onto Kursk.
When Ustinov closed the criminal case without filing charges, family members were angry. Retired Russian navy Captain Vladimir Mityayev lost a son on Kursk. He said, "To me, this is a clear case of negligence." In the end, no one was to blame for the disaster and no one was held responsible.:34
While the official government commission blamed the explosion on a faulty weld in the practice torpedo, Vice-Admiral Valery Ryazantsev cited inadequate training, poor maintenance, and incomplete inspections that caused the crew to mishandle the weapon. The internal tube door was designed to be three times as strong as the external torpedo door, so that any explosion inside the tube would be directed out into the sea. Salvage crews found the internal tube hatch cover embedded in the bulkhead separating the first and second compartments, 12 metres (39 ft) from the tube. This led investigators to conclude that it was likely that the internal door was not fully closed when the explosion occurred.
It was known that the electrical connectors between the torpedoes and the internal tube door were unreliable and often required the torpedo crews to open and re-close the door to clean the connection before an electrical contact could be established. Kursk's crew had not fired a torpedo for three years, and that torpedo was a much simpler battery-powered type. The crew had to complete specific maintenance steps on a regular basis and before firing a torpedo. This included cleaning the torpedo tube of lubricants, metal shavings, and dust that accumulate during long periods of inactivity.
After the accident, investigators recovered a partially burned copy of the safety instructions for loading HTP torpedoes, but the instructions were for a significantly different type of torpedo and failed to include essential steps for testing an air valve. The 7th Division, 1st Submarine Flotilla never inspected the Kursk's crew's qualifications and readiness to fire HTP torpedoes. Kursk's crew had no prior experience with and had not been trained in handling or firing HTP-powered torpedoes. Ryazantsev believed that due to their inexperience and lack of training, compounded by incomplete inspections and oversight, and because Kursk's crew followed faulty instructions when loading the practice torpedo, they set off a chain of events that led to the explosion.:35 Ryazantsev asserted that signatures on the records documenting that the sailors had been trained in handling and firing HTP torpedoes had been faked. He stated that the warhead fuses on combat torpedoes 1, 3, 5, and 6 were set off when the first compartment collapsed after striking the sea bottom.
Accusations of cover-up
The Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid published a report in June 2001 that senior officers in the Russian Navy had engaged in an elaborate deception to cover the actual cause of the disaster. This referred to statements that the boat's captain, Gennady Lyachin, had sent a message to headquarters immediately prior to the explosion, "We have a malfunctioning torpedo. Request permission to fire it," though it is unlikely that, as captain of the vessel, he would have requested permission under such circumstances.
The Russian Navy was later criticised as misrepresenting facts and misleading the public.:148 The navy feared that if it was revealed that the submarine blew up because of crew incompetence, Russia's status as a great power would be in doubt.:22 Their response was compared to the Soviet style of cover up and stonewalling like that during the Chernobyl disaster.:148 Minister of Defence Sergeyev said in interviews on 21 March 2000, that he had never refused any foreign help.:148
The Guardian wrote in a 2002 review of two books, Kursk, Russia's Lost Pride and A Time to Die: The Kursk Disaster:
The hopelessly flawed rescue attempt, hampered by badly designed and decrepit equipment, illustrated the fatal decline of Russia's military power. The navy's callous approach to the families of the missing men was reminiscent of an earlier Soviet insensitivity to individual misery. The lies and incompetent cover-up attempts launched by both the navy and the government were resurrected from a pre-Glasnost era. The wildly contradictory conspiracy theories about what caused the catastrophe said more about a naval high command in turmoil, fumbling for a scapegoat, than about the accident itself.
While most experts agreed that a torpedo had exploded, they differed on what caused the explosion. Many Russians did not believe that Kursk could be so easily sunk. The tragedy spawned a number of wild conspiracy theories to explain the disaster. One theory offered was an explosion located in the high-pressure air tanks used to blow the ballast tanks, located near the torpedo tubes. Mainstream publications like Der Spiegel, Berliner Zeitung, and the Sunday Times claimed to possess documentation proving that the submarine was struck by a missile fired by Pyotr Velikiy.:33 This was the largest naval exercise that the Russian navy had conducted in more than a decade, which increased the chances of a friendly fire incident. Other theories included Chechen espionage, human error, sabotage, and that Kursk was testing a new top-secret torpedo, Shkval (Squall), capable of speeds in excess of 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph). Another theory was that USS Memphis had fired a torpedo at Kursk.
Manufacturer disagrees on cause
The director of the Gidropribor Research Institute that designed the torpedo, Stanislav Proshkin, challenged the conclusion of the government's official report. He said the weapon could only have exploded after an external event like a fire. He said that the torpedoes are routinely tested during manufacturing and are dropped from a height of 10 metres (33 ft) without causing damage that could lead to an explosion. He also said Kursk was designed with two autonomous, independent control systems that would have detected a rise in temperature while the torpedo was stored on the racks. The sub was equipped with a special drain system that could rapidly drain hydrogen peroxide fuel from a torpedo into the sea. If a temperature rise was detected in the torpedo tube, the torpedo would have automatically been ejected into the sea. In addition, any fire in the torpedo compartment would have triggered a powerful fire-extinguishing system that would have dumped "tons of water" on the fire.
The Russian government committed to raising the wreck and recovering the crew's remains in a US$65M salvage operation. They contracted with the Dutch marine salvage companies Smit International and Mammoet to raise Kursk from the sea floor. It became the largest salvage operation of its type ever accomplished. The salvage operation was extremely dangerous because of the risk of radiation from the reactor. Only seven of the submarine's 24 torpedoes were accounted for. The unknown location of the lost torpedoes along with the presence of seven unexploded torpedo warheads (about 225 kilograms (496 lb) TNT equivalent each), the 22 SS-N-19 Granit cruise missiles aboard (about 760 kilograms (1,680 lb) each), plus a missile ejection charge (about 7 kilograms (15 lb) TNT equivalent) in each silo.
Salvage divers from Halliburton first detached the bow from the rest of the vessel because it may have contained unexploded torpedo warheads and because it could break off and destabilise the lifting. The divers installed two large hydraulic suction anchors into the seabed and attached a high-strength tungsten carbide abrasive saw that was pulled back and forth over the bow between the anchors. It took ten days to detach the bow.
After the bow was cut free, the salvage crews raised several smaller pieces of wreckage. This included a piece of a torpedo tube weighing about a ton which was analysed to try to learn if the explosion occurred inside or outside the tube. They salvaged a high-pressure compressed air cylinder weighing about half a ton, to learn more about the nature of the explosion. They also raised a part of the cylindrical section of the hard frame and part of the left forward spherical partition, to determine the intensity and temperature of the fire in the forward compartment. Finally, they brought up a fragment of the sonar system dome.
Mammoet converted the 24,000-long-ton (24,000 t), 130-metre (430 ft) long, Giant 4 semi-submersible deck barge to carry the sub. The ship was designed to carry huge loads on its deck, but Kursk would ride beneath the ship. Giant 4 had to be completely modified to retrieve and carry the sub underneath. To raise the remainder of the ship, the salvage team planned an extremely complex operation that required them to design and build custom lifting equipment and employ new technologies. They wrote custom software that would automatically compensate for the effects of wave motion due to the rough Barents Sea, which could sever the cables suspending the sub beneath the barge.
Divers cut a large hole in the barge's hull to allow room for the submarine's sail. Workers fitted the hull of Giant 4 with large saddles shaped to fit Kursk's outer hull. They cut holes through the barge to allow 26 hoisting cables to pass through. The team manufactured 26 giant cable reels to hold the more than 200 kilometres (120 mi) of cable to be used to raise the ship. The giant cable reels fed 26 huge hydraulic strand jacks, each mounted on a computer-controlled, pressurised pneumatic heave compensator powered by hydrogen gas that automatically adjusted for sea waves. Giant 4 was held in position over the submarine by an eight-point mooring system from four twin-drum winches on the main deck.
Mayo, a diving platform, was equipped with dive chambers to accommodate the dive teams. They worked in six-hour shifts, and when they weren't in the water, the divers remained in the saturation chambers for the entire 28 days the operation took. The divers used hydraulic abrasive water jets to cut 26 holes through both the outer and inner hulls. The salvage divers mounted custom guidance rings around the holes in the sub and lowered guide cables to each through the holes in Giant 4. The team then used the four guide cables to lower a custom-made giant gripper, similar to a toggle bolt, which were custom designed to fit each hole, and the divers manoeuvred them through the guidance ring.
The crew lowered 26 groups of hoisting cables, each capable of lifting 900 tons, to the submarine and attached them to the grippers. The strand jacks lifted the 26 hoisting cables and slowly raised Kursk until it was beneath Giant 4. On 8 October 2001, fourteen months after the disaster, and only five months after the contract had been awarded to them, the salvage team raised the remainder of the ship in a 15-hour operation.
Once the sub was raised and joined to the barge, it was carried back under the barge to the Russian Navy's Roslyakovo Shipyard in Murmansk. Once there, two giant, custom-manufactured pontoons were floated under Giant 4 to lift the barge 20 metres (66 ft) to allow it to enter a floating dry dock with Kursk attached underneath. Once in the dry dock, the pontoons were pumped full of more air, lifting Giant 4 and allowing crews to remove the lifting cables and detach Kursk.
Bow destroyed on sea floor
The Russians initially intended to raise the bow from the sea floor—possibly containing undetonated torpedoes—but then decided it was too risky. Some analysts theorised the Russians may also have wanted to prevent foreign countries from accessing the debris which had been classified as state secrets. They decided to destroy what was left of the bow where it lay and blew up the remnants in September 2002.
Crew in ninth compartment
There were 24 men assigned to compartments six through nine towards the rear of the boat. Of that number, 23 survived the two blasts and gathered in the small ninth compartment, which had an escape hatch. Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, head of the turbine unit in the seventh department, and one of three surviving officers of that rank, apparently took charge. Emergency lighting was normally powered by batteries located in the first compartment, but these had been destroyed in the explosion. But the ninth compartment contained a number of independent emergency lights, which apparently worked.
Kolesnikov wrote two notes, parts of which were released by Vice Admiral Motsak to the media for the first time on 27 October 2000. The first, written at 13:15, 1 hour and 45 minutes after the second explosion, contained a private note to his family and, on the reverse, information on their situation and the names of those in the ninth compartment. The handwriting appears normal, indicating the sailors still had some light.
It's 13:15. All personnel from section six, seven, and eight have moved to section nine, there are 23 people here. We feel bad, weakened by carbon dioxide ... Pressure is increasing in the compartment. If we head for the surface we won't survive the compression. We won't last more than a day. ... All personnel from sections six, seven, and eight have moved to section nine. We have made the decision because none of us can escape.
Kolesnikov wrote the second note at 15:15. His writing was extremely difficult to read.
It's dark here to write, but I'll try by feel. It seems like there are no chances, 10–20%. Let's hope that at least someone will read this. Here's the list of personnel from the other sections, who are now in the ninth and will attempt to get out. Regards to everybody, no need to despair. Kolesnikov.
The newspaper Izvestia reported on 26 February 2001 that another note, written by Lt. Cmdr. Rashid Aryapov, had been recovered during the initial rescue operation.:22 Aryapov held a senior position in the sixth compartment. The note was written on the page of a detective novel and wrapped in plastic. It was found in a pocket of his clothing after his body was recovered.
Izvestia quoted unidentified naval officers who claimed that Aryapov wrote that the explosion was caused by "faults in the torpedo compartment, namely, the explosion of a torpedo on which the Kursk had to carry out tests". Izvestia also stated that Aryapov wrote that as a result of the explosions the submarine was tossed violently about, and many crew members were injured by equipment that tore loose as a result. To the Russian public, it appeared that the Russian Navy was covering up its inability to rescue the trapped sailors.
Escape hatch unused
Analysis of the wreck could not determine whether the escape hatch was workable from the inside. Analysts theorise that the men may have rejected risking the escape hatch even if it were operable, and would have preferred to wait for a submarine rescue ship to attach itself to the hatch. The sub was relatively close to shore and in the middle of a large naval exercise. The sailors had every reason to believe that rescue would arrive quickly.:90–92 Using the escape trunk was risky. The sailors were in a compartment that was initially at surface atmosphere pressure, so they did not risk decompression sickness ('the bends') if they used the rescue hoods to ascend to the surface. But the Arctic water was extremely cold and they could not survive long in the water. Also, water was slowly seeping into the ninth compartment, increasing the atmospheric pressure and thus the risk of decompression sickness and death when they ascended to the surface. In addition it was likely that some of the men were seriously injured and escape would have been very difficult for them.:88–92
When the nuclear reactors automatically shut down, the air purification system would have shut down, emergency power would be limited, and the crew would soon have been in complete darkness and experienced falling temperatures.:88–92
Death of survivors
There was considerable debate over how long the sailors in the ninth compartment had survived. Russian military officers initially gave conflicting accounts, that survivors could have lived up to a week within the sub, but those that died would have been killed very quickly. The Dutch recovery team reported that they thought the men in the least affected ninth compartment might have survived for two to three hours. But the level of carbon dioxide in the compartment exceeded that which people can produce in a closed space. Divers found ash and dust inside the compartment when they first opened that hatch, evidence of a fire. But this fire was separate from that caused by the exploding torpedo.:143–145
Captain-Lieutenant Kolesnikov, evidently the senior officer in the compartment, wrote a final note at 15:15 in the dark, giving evidence that he was alive at least four hours after the explosion. Other notes recovered later show that some sailors in the ninth compartment were alive at least 6 hours and 17 minutes after the boat sank. Vice Admiral Vladislav Ilyin, first deputy chief of the Russian Navy's staff and head of the Kursk Naval Incident Cell, concluded that the survivors had lived up to three days.:143–145
In any event, the Russian rescue teams were poorly equipped and badly organised, while foreign teams and equipment were far away and not given permission to assist.:143–145 It is unlikely that any rescue by either Russian or foreign specialists could have arrived and reached the sub in time to rescue any survivors.
While waiting for the boat to be brought to shore, a team of military doctors set up a temporary forensic laboratory at the military hospital in Severomorsk. After Giant 4 was floated out of the drydock, water was drained from the drydock, exposing the Kursk's hull. Salvage teams cut into the compartments to drain water from the interior. Ordnance teams removed the Granit cruise missiles and Stallion anti-ship missiles from outside the hull. On 23 October, two investigators and two navy commanders were the first to enter the hull. The next day, 24 October, eight teams of investigators and operational experts began analysing the debris found inside the boat and recovering and identifying remains of the crew. Working from a database of personal identification details, including the crew members' features, dental x-rays, birth marks, and tattoos, the doctors examined the bodies as they were brought to the laboratory.
Salvage team members found a large number of potassium superoxide chemical cartridges, used to absorb carbon dioxide and chemically release oxygen to enable survival, in the ninth compartment. Autopsies of the crew recovered from the ninth compartment showed that three men suffered from thermal and chemical burns. Researchers concluded Captain-Lieutenant Kolesnikov and two others had attempted to recharge the oxygen generation system when they accidentally dropped one of the chemical superoxide cartridges into the sea water slowly filling the compartment.:143–145 When the cartridge came in contact with the oily sea water, it triggered a chemical explosion and flash fire. Kolesnikov's abdomen was burned by acid, exposing the internal organs, and the flesh on his head and neck were removed by the chemical explosion.:143
The investigation showed that some men temporarily survived this fire by plunging under water, as fire marks on the bulkheads indicated the water was at waist level at the time. But the flash fire consumed all remaining oxygen, so that the men still alive after the flash explosion quickly died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Water continued to seep into the compartment and by the time rescue divers opened the compartment, they found only a small air pocket containing 7% oxygen.
Bodies recovered from the ninth compartment were relatively easy to identify. Those recovered from the third, fourth, and fifth compartments were badly damaged by the explosion. Forensic examination of two of the reactor control room casualties found in compartment four showed extensive skeletal injuries which indicated that they had sustained an explosive force of over 50g. These shocks would have immediately incapacitated or killed the operators. One sailor's body was found embedded in the ceiling of the second compartment. Three crewmen's bodies were completely destroyed by the blast and fire and nothing of their remains could be identified or recovered.
The sinking of the ship, the pride of their submarine fleet, was a devastating blow to the Russian military. The Kursk's participation in the exercise had been intended to demonstrate Russia's place as an important player on the international stage, but the country's inept handling of the crisis instead exposed its weak political decision-making ability and the decline of its military. Finally recognising the hazard of the HTP-fuelled torpedoes, the Russian Navy ordered all of them to be removed from service.
Once the human remains had been removed and the hull had been thoroughly investigated, the remainder of the ship was transported to Sayda Bay on the northern Kayla Peninsula. The two nuclear reactors were defuelled and the ship was cut up for scrap.
Putin accepted the resignation of Igor Sergeyev from his position as Minister of Defence on 28 March 2001 and made him his assistant on strategic stability. He replaced him with Sergei Ivanov, who had previously been secretary of the Security Council of Russia. The position of Minister of Defence had always been filled by a professional member of the military. Ivanov had retired from the military in 2000, so his appointment as Minister of Defence while a civilian shocked the Russian military.
On 1 December 2001, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov presented a preliminary report to Putin. Ustinov wrote that the entire exercise had been "poorly organized" and that the probe had revealed "serious violations by both Northern Fleet chiefs and the Kursk crew." Shortly afterward, Putin transferred the Northern Fleet commander, Vyacheslav Popov, and his chief of staff, Admiral Mikhail Motsak. As is common in such circumstances, both soon obtained jobs elsewhere in the government. Popov became a representative for the Murmansk region in the Federation Council, and Motsak became deputy presidential envoy for the North-Western Federal District. Popov and Motsak had championed the story that the accident had been caused by a collision with a NATO submarine. When Putin dismissed them, he made a point of repudiating the collision theory.:163 In another example of a lateral transfer, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov had been an outspoken advocate of the theory that the Kursk had collided with a foreign submarine. He had also been in charge of the rescue operation and follow-up inquiry. In February 2002, Putin removed him from his position as Deputy Prime Minister and made him Minister of Industry, Science, and Technology.
Putin dismissed the Northern Fleet's submarine commander, Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev,:162 and in total removed 12 high-ranking officers in charge of the Northern Fleet. Paradoxically, he said their dismissal had nothing to do with the Kursk disaster, but that they had been responsible for "serious flaws in the organizations of the service." However, all 12 had been involved with the exercise, the rescue operations, or the submarine itself.:34 All were transferred to equal positions elsewhere in the government or in the business sector.
A year later Putin commented on his response, "I probably should have returned to Moscow, but nothing would have changed. I had the same level of communication both in Sochi and in Moscow, but from a PR point of view I could have demonstrated some special eagerness to return."
As a result of the disaster, Russia began participating in NATO search and rescue exercises in 2011. It was the first time a Russian submarine had taken part in a NATO-led exercise. The Russian Navy also increased the number of deep-sea divers trained each year from 18–20 to 40–45.
Awards to those killed
Outside the port city of Severodvinsk where the submarine was built, a large granite slab was erected on the sand dunes. It is engraved, "This sorrowful stone is set in memory of the crew of the nuclear submarine Kursk, who tragically died on 12 August 2000, while on military duty." Other memorials were built in Moscow, Sevastopol, Nizhny Novgorod, and Severomorsk. A memorial was erected in Serafimovskoe Cemetery in St. Petersburg, where 32 of the sailors were buried. The city of Kursk, for which the vessel was named, erected a memorial made from fragments of its hull.
On 17 March 2009, journalist Tatyana Abramova from the newspaper Murmanskiy Vestnik found Kursk's sail in the yard of a scrap metal dealer. It had been left there after several years of negotiations had failed to raise the estimated €22,000 for a memorial. The discovery sparked an outcry among citizens in Murmansk and they demanded it be turned into a memorial to the men who died. After considerable difficulty, the memorial was finally completed and dedicated on Sunday, 26 July 2009, Russia's Navy Day. It was placed on the observation deck of the Church of the Saviour on Water in Murmansk, the submarine's home port and location of the Vidyayevo naval base. It is among a memorial to sailors who perished during peacetime. It lists the names of the crew members.
In popular culture
- A Time to Die (2002, ISBN 0609610007), an investigative book on the tragedy written by journalist Robert Moore
- The incident was the subject of an episode of the documentary series Seconds From Disaster.
- Kursk, a 2009 play by the British playwright Bryony Lavery inspired by the Kursk disaster
- Kursk, a 2018 film directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Colin Firth and Matthias Schoenaerts, based on Robert Moore's book A Time to Die,
- Sequoya's "Barren the Sea", a folk song about the tragedy
- Matt Elliott's "The Kursk", from his 2004 album, Drinking Songs
- August curse
- HMS Sidon – Royal Navy submarine sunk in Portland Harbour by explosion of a faulty torpedo
- Sinking of PNS Ghazi
- USS Scorpion
- List of submarine incidents since 2000
- List of sunken nuclear submarines – Wikimedia list article
- Peter Davidson, Huw Jones, John H. Large (October 2003). "The Recovery of the Russian Federation Nuclear Powered Submarine Kursk" (PDF). World Maritime Technology Conference, San Francisco. Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 February 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2015.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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- List and pictures of crew members (Russian)
- News about the Kursk sinking (Russian)
- In depth coverage by the BBC
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