Aboard Kursk, 'Submariner's Worst Nightmare'; Nuclear Sub's Plunge, Failure to Deploy Escape Mechanisms Baffle Western Experts
Steven Mufson; Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post
August 15, 2000, Tuesday, Final Edition A SECTION; Pg. A19
Whatever problem sank the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk on Sunday, it had to
be big--and that could complicate rescue efforts for more than 100 crew members
trapped in the icy waters of the Barents Sea.
U.S.-based submarine experts said yesterday the 500-foot-long, 13,900-ton submarine with a double-layer hull was designed to withstand an American
torpedo attack and had at least two escape mechanisms for the crew.
"Obviously something seriously is wrong, because this is a big, robust sub that
was designed to be hard to sink," said
John Pike of the Federation of American
"They didn't just stub their toe."
"This is a submariner's worst nightmare," said a Pentagon official, noting that it was unclear whether there was a
breach in the submarine hull or whether the vessel, having shut down its
nuclear reactors and switched to battery power, would have enough oxygen to
sustain the crew while a rescue is organized.
"This reminds me of Apollo 13,
but on the bottom of the sea," he said.
Experts said the initial Russian reports that the submarine's torpedo bays were
flooded wouldn't explain the sinking of the vessel, unless one of the ship's
torpedoes had exploded.
"More than 40 percent of the pressure hull would have to be flooded for it not
to be able to surface on its
own," said George Sviatov, a submarine architect with the Soviet Navy for 29 years
and now a defense consultant based in Washington.
"That suggests catastrophic damage and considerable casualties."
Sviatov said the most likely explanations for the sinking were that the
horizontal planes, which control whether the ship
goes up or down, jammed; that the submarine was damaged by a weapon; or that it
had a major collision with another vessel. The Kursk might have turned off its
active sonar system, designed to protect against collisions, in order to
disguise its location, Sviatov said, adding,
"They don't use
active sonar in exercises."
At the submarine's depth, it is extremely unlikely for crew members to escape
without sophisticated equipment. The water pressure would make opening the
submarine hatches difficult and dangerous. Even if the crew members could get
out and possessed special breathing gear, they would risk
death from the extreme pressure or hypothermia from the cold water before
reaching the surface. The atmospheric pressure at the Russian vessel's
depth--about 480 feet--is about 228 pounds per square inch, compared with the
normal 14.7 pounds psi at sea level.
With the submarine's nuclear generators
shut down, time is a factor. The sub is using battery power, but that probably
will produce only enough oxygen to last a few days, at most. If surface vessels
can connect oxygen lines to the sub, rescuers would gain more time.
damage to the submarine, there would ordinarily be several ways to rescue the
The Russian Navy, like the U.S. Navy, possesses a deep submersible rescue
vehicle that can attach to a hatch on the larger vessel. The 49-foot-long
American version, which can carry two dozen people to the
surface at a time, was developed after the U.S. submarine Thresher sank in the
North Atlantic in April 1963 with the loss of all 129 aboard.
The United States has two of these vessels, based in San Diego, that can be
transported by truck, ship, submarine or airplane.
A Pentagon official said the U.S. Navy and its allies conduct frequent
exercises with the vehicles. A smaller rescue
"chamber" can also be attached to a hatch to ferry six people at a time to the surface.
But American defense officials said they were not sure that the Russian
hatch would be compatible with the American rescue vehicle, even if the
Russians asked for U.S. help.
The Russian version of the rescue vehicle, one of which was assigned to the
Arctic fleet during the Soviet era, would attach to the rear of the Kursk, a
Pentagon official said. If that escape method isn't being used, it could
mean that the rear of the submarine is buried in the sea bottom, damaged or at
an inaccessible angle. It is also possible that the Russian rescue vehicle is
no longer functioning, U.S. experts said.
In addition, the Russian crew ordinarily would be able to save itself by
detaching the top portion of the
vessel, known as the sail, and floating to the surface inside it. The failure
to use that method may mean that the sub is upside down, that the crew can't
reach that part of the ship, or that it is damaged, experts said.
Under certain conditions, divers using special equipment also could reach the
vessel and might be able to
carry out a rescue, according to diving experts at the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institute in Massachusetts.
"It's definitely within the range of divers," said WHOI diving safety officer Terrence Rioux, who served on a Navy submarine
depth on standard SCUBA equipment is about 130 feet. Naval rescue divers
breathing a special mixture of gases are certified to operate at 300 feet and
can go to 800 feet using a special chamber, Rioux said. Going down 1,000 feet
"is pretty standard" for commercial divers on deep oil rigs, Rioux said.
Early in the 20th century, the Navy used a submersible vessel to rescue crew
members from a submarine called the Squalus in about 300 feet of water off the
Dudley Foster, a veteran pilot of the Navy's deep submersible Alvin, now used
for research, said that if conditions are right, barges with heavy cranes might
be able to attach a cable and drag the sub or shift its position slightly.
But lifting such a huge
vessel would be virtually impossible, Pike said. A barge crane made news last
week when it raised the sunken Civil War sub H.L. Hunley off the South Carolina
coast with a 300-ton lift, a tiny fraction of what would be needed for the
writer Roberto Suro contributed to this report.
Copyright 2000 The Washington Post