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 Scientists. "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.

Barring catastrophic damage to the submarine, there would ordinarily be several ways to rescue the crew.

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 submarine's 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 rescue vessel.

The maximum 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 or more "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 New England coast.

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 Kursk.

Staff writer Roberto Suro contributed to this report.

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post