Twenty years ago, the world held it’s breath and watched an unfolding drama take place in the Barents Sea amidst the Arctic Ocean off Norway.
Russia’s most powerful, nuclear-powered attack submarine at the time, the KURSK, had suffered two cataclysmic on-board explosions – one so powerful it was detected by seismologists around the globe – and sunk to the bottom of the seabed to the relatively shallow depth of 107 metres below the ocean’s surface.
What is known is that 23 sailors amongst the crew of 118 survived the initial explosions. They lived on for as long as six days after the sub had become a crippled tomb with dwindling on-board oxygen supplies submerged in total darkness and plummeting inner-hull temperatures.
We know this with certainty due to dated, hand-written notes recovered – turns out pen-ink inscribed paper is still readable many months and years after being submerged in seawater – from the bodies of sailors who clung to life as long as they could, huddled together in the still intact, but slowly leaking and filling ninth compartment of the stricken Oscar 2 class submarine.
I’ve watched the 2018, Colin Firth-starring movie KURSK – re-titled THE COMMAND for it’s U.S release – read the book by journalist Robert Moore the film was based on – and vividly recall following every news and television report of the unfolding tragedy and failed rescue attempts I could gather back in August of 2000.
The book in particular offers up a deluge of revealing details of what went shockingly wrong in both the initial accident and the subsequent botched rescue attempts.
The Kursk was finally raised from the ocean floor in 2001. In a stunning technical achievement, Dutch contracting consortium Mammoet–Smit International succeeded in pulling the 155 metre sub ashore. It was the heaviest object ever lifted from such a depth.
After a year-long investigation, it was confirmed that torpedo malfunction was to blame. This gave lie to several semi-official rumors at the time about a US sub downing the Kursk, or that it collided with another vessel or an abandoned World War II mine.
The Kursk had taken a decade to design, three years to build and just 135 seconds to destroy. The calamitous ticking time bomb in it’s midst was the HTP 65-67 torpedo (two of them were on-board on the day) that had been loaded into tube number four on the starboard side of the submarine’s bow compartment.
HTP stands for ‘high-test peroxide’ – a concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide (water with an extra oxygen atom). The propulsion system responsible for driving the torpedo through the water at a speed of 30 knots relied on a chemical reaction taking place within the torpedo between HTP and kerosene.
The particular HTP torpedo in tube number four had last been serviced six years previously in 1994. Over the intervening time, deep within it’s casing, corrosion had invisibly begun to weaken gaskets close to the tank that contained the HTP. It was a chemical cocktail waiting to begin a chain reaction once it came into contact with the copper-lined torpedo tube.
Britain had banned the use of HTP torpedos back in 1955 after an explosion on-board the HMS Sidon killed 12 sailors. An exhaustive investigation by the Royal Navy concluded that hydrogen peroxide was too volatile to be stored within the confines of a submarine’s torpedo room.
Never again did a British submarine go to sea with weapons that used HTP. The same could not be said for Russia’s Northern Fleet forty-five years later.
Another feature of the tragedy laid bare in the book is the fateful timeline forever associated with the rescue attempts.
The Kursk sank to the bottom of the ocean bed on August 12, 2000. It was not until five days later on August 17 that a Russian submersible attempted rescue. Despite numerous tries it was unable to create a vacuum seal with the crippled sub’s hatch.
More delays followed during which Russian military leaders and newly elected President Vladimir Putin – who had been in office only three months when the disaster unfolded – debated whether or not to accept International help.
On August 20 British and Norwegian crews arrived at the disaster site in the Barents sea. Finally on August 21 – nine days after the submarine sank – they were granted permission to attempt a hatch opening. When they did they discovered the 9th compartment of the sub – where all the survivors of the initial blasts had gathered – was completely flooded.
It was widely considered had Russia responded more promptly and accepted foreign assistance more readily there would have been a much higher chance of the sailors who survived the initial explosion having been rescued alive.
Ps. Can you believe there is now a Kursk video game? Available on PC, Mac, Sony Playstation 4 and Xbox One, the game has been released by a Polish company.
According to the developer, after the first few minutes depicting the explosion, the game should then go on to last at least 10 hours.
Players apparently not only have the opportunity to feel like a member of a submarine crew, but are also able to influence the story through their choices, including moral ones. Decisions made have a significant impact on the ending of the game, of which there are several versions.