Kursk submarine disaster

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This article incorporates information from the equivalent article on the Russian Wikipedia.
Wrecked hull of Kursk after it was raised a year later.

The Kursk submarine disaster occurred during a major Russian naval exercise in the Barents Sea on Saturday, 12 August 2000. The Kursk, an Oscar-class submarine (Russian: Project 949A Антей), was preparing to load a dummy 65-76 "Kit" torpedo when a fire, followed by a large explosion, caused the ship to sink. Nearby ships registered the explosion but did not know what to make of it. A second, much larger, explosion took place two minutes and 15 seconds later, and was powerful enough to register on seismographs as far away as Alaska.

The Russian Navy did not recognize that the vessel had sunk for more than six hours and because the emergency rescue buoy had been intentionally disabled, it took more than 16 hours for them to locate the sunken ship. Over four days they used four different diving bells and submersibles to try to attach to the escape hatch without success. The navy's response was criticized as slow and inept. The government initially misled the public and media about the timing of the accident, stating that communication had been established and that a rescue effort was under way, and refused help from other governments. The Russian Navy offered a variety of reasons for the sub's sinking, including blaming the accident on a collision with a NATO vessel. On the fifth day, the Russians accepted British and Norwegian offers of assistance. Seven days after the submarine went down, Norwegian divers finally opened a hatch to the rescue tube in the ship's ninth compartment, hoping to locate survivors, but found it flooded.

An official investigation after most of the wreck was raised along with analysis of pieces of debris concluded that a faulty weld in the casing of the practice torpedo caused high-test peroxide to leak, which caused the kerosene fuel to explode. The initial explosion destroyed the torpedo room, severely damaged the control room, incapacitated or killed the control room crew, and caused the submarine to sink. The fire resulting from this explosion in turn triggered the detonation of between five and seven torpedo warheads after the submarine had struck bottom. This second explosion was equivalent to between 2 to 3 tonnes (2.0 to 3.0 long tons; 2.2 to 3.3 short tons) of TNT. It collapsed the first three compartments and all the decks, and destroyed compartments four and five, killing everyone forward of the nuclear reactor compartment. An alternative explanation offered by critics suggested that the crew was not familiar with nor trained on firing HTP torpedoes and had unknowingly followed preparation and firing instructions intended for a very different type of torpedo. Combined with poor oversight and incomplete inspections, the sailors initiated a set of events that led to the explosion.

It was later determined that 23 sailors in the sixth through ninth compartments survived the two explosions and took refuge in the ninth compartment. They survived more than six hours before an oxygen cartridge contacted the oily sea water, triggering an explosion and flash fire that consumed the remaining oxygen. All 118 sailors and officers—111 crew members, five officers from 7th SSGN Division Headquarters, and two design engineers—aboard the Kursk died.[1] The following year, a Dutch team was contracted by the Russians to raise the hull. Employing newly developed lifting technologies, they recovered all but the bow of the vessel, including the remains of 115 sailors, who were buried in Russia.[2]

Naval exercise[edit]

Kursk was an Oscar-class submarine, twice the length of a 747 jumbo jet, and one of the largest submarines in the Russian Navy.

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 end of the Soviet Union.[3] It included 30 ships and three submarines.[4]

The ship had recently won a citation for its excellent performance and been recognized as having the best submarine crew in the Northern Fleet.[1] Although it was an exercise, the Kursk loaded a full complement of combat weapons. It was one of the few ships authorized to carry a combat load at all times. This included 18 SS-N-16 "Stallion" anti-ship missiles and 22 SS-N-19/P-700 Granit[4] cruise missiles that were designed to defeat the best Western naval air defences.

The Kursk was reputedly unsinkable.[5] The submarine had a double hull with a 3.5-metre (11 ft) gap separating them, nine water-tight compartments, and was as long as two jumbo jets.[5] It had a mythical standing and it was claimed to be able to withstand a direct hit from a torpedo.[5]

At 08:51 local time, the Kursk requested permission to conduct a torpedo training launch and received the response "Dobro" ("Good").[1][6] After considerable delay, the submarine was set to fire two dummy torpedoes at the Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, the Northern Fleet's flagship. At 11:29 local time,[2] a practice 65-76 "Kit" torpedo, (Russian: tolstushka, or "fat girl", because of its size),[7] without a warhead,[8] was loaded 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).[9]

Initial torpedo explosion[edit]

Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority seismic readings of the explosions on the submarine Kursk on 12 August 2000.

At 11:29:34 (07:29:50 UTC), seismic detectors at the Norwegian seismic array (NORSAR) and in other locations around the world recorded an explosion at a magnitude of 1.5 on the Richter scale.[10] The location was fixed at coordinates 69°38′N 37°19′E / 69.633°N 37.317°E / 69.633; 37.317, north-east of Murmansk. approximately 250 kilometres (160 mi) from Norway, and 80 kilometres (50 mi) from the Kola Peninsula.[11] The explosion set off a fire that was later estimated to have burned at 2,700 °C (4,890 °F).[12]

Secondary explosion[edit]

At 11:31:48,[10] two minutes and 14 seconds after the first, a much larger explosion took place within the submarine. The blast, triangulated at 69°36′N 37°34′E / 69.600°N 37.567°E / 69.600; 37.567Coordinates: 69°36′N 37°34′E / 69.600°N 37.567°E / 69.600; 37.567, showed that the ship had moved around 400 metres (1,300 ft) from the location of the initial explosion. Seismic data from stations across Northern Europe show that the explosion occurred at the same depth as the sea bed. This was enough time for the ship to sink 108 metres (354 ft) and remain on the sea floor for a short while.[10]

The second explosion was equivalent to 2–3 tons of TNT,[2] or about 5–7 combat-ready torpedo warheads. A single Type 65 torpedo carries a large 450-kilogram (990 lb) warhead powerful enough to sink an aircraft carrier.[13] Acoustic data from Pyotr Velikiy was later analysed and found to indicate an explosion of about 7 torpedo warheads in rapid succession.[2] The second blast, 250 times larger than the first,[9]:216 was measured 4.2 on the Richter scale on seismographs across Europe[14] and was detected as far away as Alaska.[5]

Rescue response[edit]

The crew of the submarine Karelia detected the explosion but the captain assumed that it was part of the exercise.[15] Aboard the 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.[16] 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 Popov aboard the Petr Velikiy was not initially alarmed.[17]:36 The ship dispatched a helicopter to look for the Kursk but it was unable to locate the sub on the surface which 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. Toslenko notified the Rudnitsky '​s captain to be ready to depart on one hour's notice.[16] Toslenko's primary rescue ship was a 20 year-old former lumber carrier, the Mikhail Rudnitsky, which had been converted to support submersible rescue operations.[18] Berthed at the primary Northern Fleet base at Severomorsk,[19] the ship was equipped with two AS-32 and AS-34 Priz-class deep-submergence rescue vehicle (Project 1855) rescue vessels, a diving bell, underwater video cameras, lifting cranes, and other specialized gear.[19] But she was not equipped with stabilizers capable of keeping in position during stormy weather and could only lower her rescue vessels in calm weather.[18]: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.[19][20][21]

Russian Sailors on the surface aboard the DSRV AS-28 Priz.

Early in the evening, more than six hours after the explosion, Kursk failed to complete a scheduled communication check at 18:00.[6] 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 ship on the surface.[16][22] At 17:00, an Ilyshin 38 aircraft was dispatched and looked for the Kursk for three hours without spotting anything.[18]:74 At 22:30, the Northern Fleet declared an emergency, and the exercise was stopped.[16] Between fifteen and twenty-two vessels of the Northern Fleet, including about 3000 sailors, began searching for the submarine. Captain Teslenko commanding the Mikhail Rudnitsky left port at 00:30.[6][16]

Rumors among family members[edit]

Early on Sunday morning at the Vidyaevo Naval Base, rumours began to circulate among family members of the 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 information, but nobody had the same news. The 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 otherwise full of officers "passing the time."[18]:87

Foreign assistance refused[edit]

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 the Kursk had sunk.[7] Once officially informed, the British government, along with France, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Norway offered help,[6] and the United States offered the use of one of its two deep submergence rescue vehicles, but the Russian government absolutely refused all foreign assistance.[23] Minister of Defence Igor Sergeyev told the American Embassy that the rescue was well underway.[1]:152 The Russian Navy told reporters that a rescue was imminent.[1]

Russian rescue efforts falter[edit]

The sub was designed to be difficult to detect, and at 04:50 on Sunday, personnel aboard the Petr Velikiy found two anomalies on the seabed.[16] At 09:00 the Rudnitsky arrived at the location. While setting anchor, it recorded what it interpreted as an acoustic SOS signal from the submarine, but Captain Toslenko commanding the Rudnitsky concluded this was produced by the anchor chain striking the anchor hole.[16] At 11:30 on Sunday, August 13, the crew of the 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 stabilizer. The AS-34 was damaged and surfaced, so the crew of the Rudnitsky began preparing the AS-32 for operations.[16]

At 22:40, the AS-32 entered the water and began searching for the Kursk but was given an incorrect heading by personnel aboard the Petr Velikiy and was unable to locate the submarine. Crew aboard the Rudnitsky tried to contact the Kursk and briefly thought they heard an acoustic SOS signal, but this was determined to be of biological origin. They reported the sounds to the Petr Velikiy. The AS-32 returned to the surface at 01:00 on Monday morning, 14 August.[16]

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[11] to its conning tower.[23] They also revealed that the Kursk was listing at a 60 degree angle and down 5-7 degrees by the bow.[6] 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 bow and the sailbridge were damaged, the conning tower windows were smashed, and two missile tube lids had been torn off.

The AS-34 was repaired and was launched at 05:00. At 06:50, the AS-34 located the Kursk and attempted to attach to the aft escape trunk over the Kursk '​s ninth compartment, but its batteries were depleted and they were forced to surface to recharge the batteries. Winds increased, blowing 10–12 m/s to 15–27 m/s (22–38 mph), and the waves rose to 3–4 points (4–8 feet), forcing the Russians to suspend rescue operations.[16]

Bad weather, 3.7 metres (12 ft) waves, strong undersea currents and limited visibility impaired the rescue crews' ability to conduct operations on Tuesday and Wednesday.[3] On Tuesday the Rudnitsky lowered a diving bell twice but were unable to connect to the sub. They then tried and failed to manoeuvre a ROV onto the rescue hatch.[20]

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, August 15, three days after the sinking, the crane ship PK-7500 arrived with the more manoeuvrable Project 18270 Bester-type DSRV (AC-36).[24] 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.[16]

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 the Rudnitsky elected to cannibalize the AS-32 to repair the AS-34. Rescue operations were suspended while the repairs were made.[16] The 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.[25]

On Thursday at 12:00, Popov reported to the General Staff of the Navy that there had not been an explosion aboard the Kursk, the sub was intact on the seafloor, and that an "external influence" may have caused a leak between the first and second compartment.[16] 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.[20] Western media criticised the Russian's 32 hour response time, however the standard for deploying a recovery vessel in 2000 was 72 hours.[26] On Friday, the rescue crews reported that the ship was listing at 20 degrees instead of the earlier reported 60 degrees.

The rescue ship Altay attempted to attach a Kolokol diving bell[27] to the sub but was unsuccessful.[6] Russian Navy Headquarters in Moscow told media that rescuers had heard tapping from within the ship's hull, spelling "SOS... water",[6] although the possibility of hearing tapping through the double hull was later discounted,[23] 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.[26]

Fragments of both the outer and inner hulls were found nearby, including a piece of Kursk '​s nose weighing 5 metric tons (4.9 long tons; 5.5 short tons), indicating a large explosion in the forward torpedo room.[28][29]

The British deep submersible rescue vehicle LR5.

British and Norwegian help[edit]

Private media and state-owned Russian newspapers criticized the navy's refusal to accept international assistance.[3] Five days after the accident on 17 August 2000, President Putin accepted the British and Norwegian governments' offer of assistance. 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.[11][23] Six teams of Russian, British, and Norwegian divers arrived on Friday, 18 August.[11] The Russian 328th Expeditionary rescue squad, part of the Navy's office of Search and Rescue, also provided divers.[30]

On Sunday 20 August, the Norwegians lowered a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to the submarine. They found that the first 18 metres (59 ft) of the ship had been destroyed by the explosions. The entire bow of the ship was a mass of twisted metal and debris.[11]

Russian Navy officials imposed specific constraints that restricted the Norwegians divers to work on the stern of the ship, specifically the escape hatch over compartment nine and an air control valve connected to the rescue trunk.[11] The Norwegian deep-sea divers protested against the restrictions which they felt impeded their rescue operations.[10]

When the divers attempted to open the air control valve, it wouldn't 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 expert's advice and tried turning it clockwise, which worked.[31]

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.[10][11] That morning, they used a custom tool to open the lower 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.[11]

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,[32] and 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. Gradually working their way inside the compartment and down two levels, Warrant Officer Sergei Shmygin found the remains of Lieutenant-Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov.[30] All of the casualties had clearly been badly burned,[11] three so badly that it was impossible to identify them.[33] The divers cut additional holes in the hull over the third and fourth compartments.[32] 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.[33] They also found the ship’s log, but then had to suspend work because of severe winter weather.[23] The rescue teams conducted ongoing measurements of radiation levels inside and outside the submarine but none of the readings exceeded normal ranges.[11]

On 21 August, the Chief of staff of the Russian Northern Fleet Mikhail Motsak announced to the public that the Kursk was flooded and the crew was dead.[20] 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.

Official government response[edit]

The Russian Navy initially downplayed the incident. Late on Saturday night, nine hours after the ship 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.[19]

On Sunday, after Popov already knew that the 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.[1]:149[17]:23

The first official announcement of the accident was made by the Russians on Monday. They told the media that the 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 ship, and that "everyone on board is alive."[3] The BBC reported that the Kursk crew "had been forced to ground" the submarine because it "has broken down during exercises" but rescue crews were "in radio contact with surface vessels."[34]

Conspiracy theories[edit]

The Russian government convened a commission, chaired by vice-premier Ilya Klebanov, on 14 August, four days after the Kursk sank.[6] 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.[17]:32

Senior officers in the Russian Navy offered a variety of explanations for the accident.[5] Four days after the Kursk sank, Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief and Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated the accident had been caused by a serious collision.[35] Klebanov said the submarine may have hit an old World War II mine.[35] He also said that almost all of the sailors had died before the vessel hit bottom.[33]

While most experts agreed that a torpedo had exploded, they differed on what caused the explosion. Many Russians didn't believe that the Kursk could be so easily sunk. The tragedy spawned a number of wild conspiracy theories to explain the disaster.[5] One theory offered was an explosion located in the high-pressure air tanks used to blow the ballast tanks, located near the torpedo tubes.[35] 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 the Pyotr Velikiy.[17]: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.[23] Other theories included Chechen espionage, human error, sabotage,[23] and that the Kursk was testing a new top-secret, torpedo, Shkval (Squall), capable of speeds in excess of 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph),[36] for which the Western navies have no defence. Another theory was that the USS Memphis had fired a torpedo at the Kursk.[37]

Claim of collision with NATO submarine[edit]

Among the various theories for the cause of the disaster, senior commanders of the Russian Navy believed the submarine had collided with a NATO submarine. On 14 August, the day the official investigative commission was formed, Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated the accident had been caused by a serious collision,[35] although he gave no evidence to support his statement.[17] Many senior Navy officers maintained for almost two years afterward that the sinking had been caused by a collision. Conservative and right-wing politicians, along with many who wanted to sustain negative relations between Russia and the West, supported this scenario.[17]

On 29 or 30 August 2000, the government commission announced that the likely cause of the sinking was a "strong 'dynamic external impact' corresponding with 'first event'", probably a collision with a foreign submarine or a large surface ship, or striking a World War II mine.[3] They cited that the exercise had been monitored by two American Los Angeles-class submarines—USS Memphis (SSN-691) and USS Toledo (SSN-769)—and the Royal Navy Swiftsure class submarine HMS Splendid. When the exercise was cancelled due to the accident, they put in at European ports.[38]

Size and mass comparison of the larger Kursk and the smaller USS Toledo, which is less than half of the Kursk's displacement.

U.S. Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen responded to Russian accusations of a collision with a submarine at a press conference in Tokyo on 22 September 2000.[39]

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.[39]

While the official inquiry was still underway, on 25 October 2000, Commander of the Northern Fleet Popov and his Chief of Staff Motsak were interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.[37] They repeated the theory that the Kursk collided with a NATO submarine shadowing the exercise.[37] 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.[40]: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.[5]

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 November 17 in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia.[37] They insisted that an American submarine was closely shadowing the Kursk and had caused the collision by negligently getting too close. The Russian Navy produced a satellite image 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,[5] but the authenticity of the photos was never proven.[41]

Criticism of government response[edit]

"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."

Amelia Gentleman[42]

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.[23]

The Russian media was extremely critical of the government's handling of the sinking.[43] Images of angry family members demanding information or waiting anxiously at the dock for news of their family members were shown on media worldwide.[5] Some relatives said they only learned of the disaster from the public media[44]:108 or from conflicting rumours circulating on the navy base.[18]:87 They complained they didn't 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 ship.[3] 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 RUB18,000 rubles for the list. Even then, the government tried to prohibit reporters from contacting family members.[17]:37

The continued problems the rescuers had reaching survivors and ongoing conflicting information about the cause of the incident inflamed Russian public opinion.[23] Media described the Russian government's response to the disaster as "technically inept" and their stories as "totally unreliable."[3]

Putin meets with families[edit]

President Putin met with relatives of the dead sailors in Vidyayevo in a contentious meeting during which the families complained about the Russian Navy's response to the disaster.

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.[1][45] 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 them.[1]: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.[45] The President's response appeared callous and the government's actions looked incompetent.[7]

On Tuesday, 22 August, 10 days after the sinking, Putin met at 20:00 in the Vidyayevo navy base officers club and cultural centre with about 400-600[1]:154[44]:105 angry and grief-filled residents of the navy base and about 350 family members of the Kursk '​s crew.[1][44]:107 The meeting was closed and access was tightly controlled.[1] 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.[46] "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?"[44]:107 The hostile, contentious meeting lasted for three[44] to six[47] hours.

RTL provided the Russian national daily newspaper Kommersant with an unedited transcript.[1]: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.[44]:108 Up to this point, family members had received RUB1000 rubles (about USD$37 in 2000) in compensation, and Putin offered the families additional compensation equivalent to ten years' salary, about USD$7,000 in 2000.[44]:108[48]

Mother forcibly sedated[edit]

Main article: Nadezhda Tylik

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 interactions 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 they recorded the entire event.[1]: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. When she would not be quiet, a woman in civilian apparel behind her forcibly injected her through her clothing with a sedative. 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."[7]

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.[7][17]:36 Tylik later criticized 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.[49] The government's response to her outburst and their overall handling of the disaster generated considerable public outcry.

Putin blames media[edit]

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.[1]:160

Lashing back at the press who had been severely critical of his personal response and entire government's handling of a national tragedy, Putin attacked the messengers.[46] 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."[46][50] Putin threatened to punish the media owners and counter their influence through alternative "honest and objective" media.[46] 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."[46]

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 lies and discrediting the country. He said they were trying to "exploit this misfortune... to gain political capital."[46]

Family compensation announced[edit]

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.[44]:114 With the addition of other donations received from across the world, the families received about USD$35,000 in payments, a relative fortune.[44]:114

Official inquiry[edit]

Almost a year later, the government commission and Russia's Prosecutor General, Vladimir Ustinov, announced that the hydrogen peroxide fuel in the dummy torpedo set off the initial explosion that sank the Kursk.[8] Ustinov released a 133 volume top secret report in August 2002, two years after the disaster. The government published a four-page summary in Rossiiskaia Gazeta that revealed "stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment,"[17][51] and "negligence, incompetence and mismanagement."[1] The report said the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed.[1]

Practice torpedo explodes[edit]

Finally pushing aside the Navy's long-standing blame on a collision with a foreign vessel, the report confirmed that the 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.[1][13][52] It found that the initial explosion destroyed the torpedo room compartment and killed everyone in the first compartment.[8][53]

HTP is normally stable until it comes in contact with a catalyst. HTP then expands in volume extremely rapidly 5000 times, acting as an oxidiser, generating large volumes of steam and oxygen.[9][54] The oxygen is combined with kerosene fuel in the torpedo engine to propel the missile at a very high speed and greater range than conventional torpedoes.[17]: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 the Kursk '​s torpedo tubes.[55] 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.[56]

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.[55]

The fuel in the torpedoes carried by the Kursk was inexpensive and very powerful.[5] Torpedoes using HTP had been in use since the 1950s, but other navies stopped using them because of the danger inherent in their design.[5] HMS Sidon sank in 1955 when an experimental torpedo containing HTP exploded as it was being loaded, killing 13 sailors.[57]

According to an article that briefly appeared on Thursday 17 August 2000 on the web site of the official newspaper of the Russian Defence Ministry, Krasnaya Zvezda, the Kursk had been refitted in 1998—four years after it was commissioned—to carry torpedoes fueled using the cheap HTP. The article reported that some specialists in the Russian Navy opposed use of the HTP-fueled 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.[40]:23 Vice-premier Ilya Klebanov, chair of the Russian government 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 he had promoted use of the liquid fueled torpedoes over the safer and more expensive silver-zinc battery-powered torpedoes.[40]:23 Despite the danger and over the objections of some officers, the cash-strapped Russian Navy continued to use the design because the fuel is very inexpensive.[5][8]

Faulty weld blamed[edit]

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 10 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.[17]: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.[1] This also made the possibility of removing a damaged torpedo more difficult.[17]:23

Personnel that 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.[1] Even though the leaks on the dummy torpedoes were detected, the rubber seals weren't inspected before the exercise.[17]:35 The crew was also supposed to follow a very strict procedure while preparing the practice HTP torpedo for firing.[58]

Maintenance records revealed that the 65-76 "Kit" practice torpedo carried by the Kursk came from a batch of 10 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 never been inspected as carefully as welds on torpedoes carrying warheads are inspected. 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.[55]

Manufacturer disagrees[edit]

The director of the Gidropribor Research Institute (Russian: "ЦНИИ Гидроприбор") that designed the torpedo, Stanislav Proshkin, challenged the government's conclusion. 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.[59] He also said the 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. And that any fire in the torpedo compartment would have triggered a powerful fire extinguishing system that would have dumped "tons of water" on the fire.[59]

Alternative explanations[edit]

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.[16] The internal tube door was designed to be three times stronger than the external torpedo door, so that any explosion inside the tube would be directed out into the sea.[55] Salvage crews eventually found the internal tube door embedded in a bulkhead 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.[55]

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. The Kursk '​s crew had not fired a torpedo for three years, and that torpedo was a much simpler battery powered type.[53] 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.[53][58][60]

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 Kursks '​s crew's qualifications and readiness to fire HTP torpedoes.[53] The Kursk '​s crew had no prior experience with and hadn't been trained in handling or firing HTP powered torpedoes. Due to their inexperience and lack of training, compounded by incomplete inspections and oversight, and because the Kursk '​s crew followed faulty instructions when loading the practice torpedo, they set off a chain of events that led to the explosion.[17]:35[58] Ryazantsev asserted that signatures on the records documenting that the sailors had been trained in handling and firing HTP torpedoes had been faked.[53] 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.[53]

No blame assigned[edit]

But 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 the Kursk.[61]

Family members were angry that no charges were filed. Retired Russian navy Captain Vladimir Mityayev lost a son on the Kursk. He said, "To me, this is a clear case of negligence."[62] In the end, no one was to blame for the disaster and no one was held responsible.[17]:34

Disaster causes[edit]

For more than two years after the disaster, senior Russian Navy officials repeatedly insisted the sub had collided with another vessel. But seismic experts concluded that the signal recorded was triggered by an explosion and not a collision with another vessel.[63]

No ship collision[edit]

Geophysicists who analysed the seismic signals of the two explosions concluded that the two events were very similar. The seismic waveforms of the second event, known to be the 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 first event was also the explosion of a torpedo. Britain's Blacknest seismic monitoring station, which has studied seismic signals generated by underground nuclear explosions and those generated by earthquakes for 40 years,[64] identified two distinct explosions. They determined that two shockwaves were a perfect match and consistent with a torpedo explosion.[5]

Blast damage[edit]

The bulkhead between the first and second compartment was penetrated by a circular 47-centimetre (19 in) air conditioning duct. The bulkhead should have arrested the blast wave,[55] but in keeping with common Russian submarine practice, the pressurized valve in the ventilation system that pierced the bulkhead was left open to minimize the change in pressure during a weapon's launch.[9]:208

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. All of the 36 men in the command post located in the second compartment were immediately incapacitated by the blast wave and possibly killed.[22] One sailor's body was found embedded in the ceiling of the second compartment.[9]:218 Although at periscope depth with her radio antennas extended, no one in the command post was able to send a distress signal nor able to initiate an emergency ballast tank blow that might have resurfaced the submarine.[53]

Rescue buoy fails[edit]

The Kursk was equipped with an emergency rescue buoy on top of compartment seven that was designed to automatically deploy when it detected a variety of emergency conditions like a fire or rapid pressure change.[9]:215 It was intended to float to the surface and send a signal that would help rescuers locate the stricken vessel.[11] Some reports said that the buoy had repeatedly malfunctioned and had been welded in place.[9]:215 In fact, the Kursk had been deployed to the Mediterranean during the summer of 1999 to monitor the U.S. Fleet responding to the Kosovo crisis. 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.[9]:215

Secondary explosion[edit]

The first explosion caused a fire that raised the temperature of the compartment to more than 2,700 °C (4,890 °F).[12] The heat caused the warheads of between five to seven additional torpedoes to explode. The second explosion tore a 2-square-metre (22 sq ft) hole in the ship's hull. Although the Kursk was designed to withstand the external pressure of depths of up to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft), the internal explosions ripped open the third and fourth compartments to the sea. When underwater, there were normally 78 crew assigned to the first four compartments and 49 to the rear five compartments.[11]:3 It's likely that personnel in the fourth and fifth compartments, if able, would have tried to move to the third compartment in an attempt to reach the submarine rescue capsule in the sail, which was capable of evacuating the entire crew.[65] The second explosion collapsed the first three compartments and all of the decks together, killing anyone who remained alive in the compartments. Water poured in at 90,000 litres (3,200 cu ft) per second. The dead included 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.[9]

The fifth compartment that contained the ship'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 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 automatically shut down and preventing nuclear meltdown and widespread contamination of the sea.[2]

Later forensic examination of two of the reactor control room casualties showed extensive skeletal injuries which indicated that they had sustained explosive force of over 50g during the explosions. These shocks would have temporarily disoriented or killed the operators and possibly other sailors further aft.[2] Damage and flooding prevented use of the escape trunk in the first compartment or the detachable escape module located in the sail within the third compartment.[6][26][66]

Survivors in aft compartment[edit]

A portion of a note written by Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, found on his body in the ninth compartment.

There were 24 men assigned to compartments six through nine towards the rear of the ship.[67] Of that number, 23 men survived the two blasts and gathered in the ninth compartment which contained an escape hatch.[6] Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, head of the turbine department, and one of three surviving officers of that rank, apparently took charge.

Kolesnikov wrote two notes,[26][68] parts of which were released by Vice Admiral Motsak to the media for the first time on 27 October 2000.[22] The first, written at 13:15, 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.[67]

It's 13:15. All personnel from section six, seven and eight have moved to section nine, there are 23 people here.[69] 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.[23][26] ... All personnel from sections six, seven and eight have moved to section nine. We have made the decision because none of us can escape.[23]

Kolesnikov wrote the second note at 15:45. 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.[70]

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.[40]:22 Aryapov held a senior position in the sixth compartment where the nuclear reactor was located. 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.[22] 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.[22][68] To the Russian public, it appeared that Russian Navy was covering up its inability to rescue the trapped sailors.[40]

Escape hatch unused[edit]

Analysis of the wreck could not determine whether the escape hatch was workable from the inside. Analysts theorize 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.[18]:90–92 Using the escape trunk was risky. The sailors were in a compartment that was initially at surface atmosphere pressure, so they didn't risk 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. Water was slowly seeping into the ninth compartment, increasing the atmospheric pressure, which would have made an ascent to the surface extremely risky, leading to decompression sickness and death. It was likely that some of the men were seriously injured and escape would have been very difficult for them.[18]:88–92

When the nuclear reactors automatically shut down, emergency power would have been limited, and the crew would have been in complete darkness and experienced falling temperatures.

There was considerable debate over how long the sailors 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.[2] Lieutenant Kolesnikov's last note has a time of 15:15, indicating that he lived almost four hours after the explosion.[71] Other notes recovered later show that some sailors in the ninth compartment were alive at least 6 hours and 17 minutes after the ship sank.[26]

Death of survivors[edit]

The official investigation into the disaster discovered that a number of potassium superoxide chemical cartridges, used to absorb carbon dioxide and chemically release oxygen to enable survival, were found in the ninth compartment. But the level of carbon-monoxide in the compartment exceeded what people can produce in a closed space.[6] Divers had found ash and dust inside the compartment when they first opened that hatch, showing evidence of a fire. But this fire was separate from that caused by the exploding torpedo. This and other evidence found in the salvaged wreck suggested that while the crew survived for a period of time, they may have accidentally dropped one of the chemical superoxide cartridges into the seawater slowly filling the compartment. When the cartridge came in contact with the oily sea water, it triggered a chemical reaction and flash fire.[26] 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 fire consumed all remaining oxygen, killing the remaining survivors,[55] who died of asphyxiation or carbon monoxide poisoning.[26]

Salvage operation[edit]

The Russian government committed to raising the wreck in a USD$65M salvage operation.[72] They contracted with the Dutch marine salvage companies Smit International and Mammoet to raise the Kursk from the sea floor. It became the largest salvage operation of its type ever accomplished.[73] The salvage operation was very dangerous due to the risk of radiation from the reactor, along with the presence of unexploded torpedo warheads (about 225 kilograms (496 lb) TNT equivalent each), the 23 SS-N-19 "Shipwreck" cruise missiles aboard (about 760 kilograms (1,680 lb) each), plus each silo contained a missile ejection charge (about 7 kilograms (15 lb) TNT equivalent).[2]

The salvage divers 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 destabilize the lifting.[74] Salvage divers built two hydraulic anchors into the seabed and attached a high-strength abrasive saw that was pulled back and forth between the anchors. It took 10 days to detach the bow.[75]

While they cut the bow free, the salvage crews raised a piece of a torpedo tube weighing about a ton, to try to learn if the explosion occurred inside or outside the tube; a high-pressure compressed air cylinder weighing about half a ton,[76] to learn more about the nature of the explosion; 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; and a fragment of the sonar system dome.[77]

To raise the rest of the ship's hull, the salvage divers completed an extremely complex operation that employed newly developed lifting technologies. They attached a series of 26 cables to the submarine using expansion bolts inserted in holes in the hull. The operation required planners to compensate for the effects of wave motion due to rough seas which could sever the cables suspending the sub beneath the barge. They designed a hydraulic jack that was mounted on a pneumatic heave compensator for each of the 26 cables.[73] The hull was suspended beneath the specially modified barge Giant 4. On 8 October 2001, fourteen months after the disaster, they raised the remainder of the ship. Once the sub was raised to satisfactory level, it was carried back under the barge to the Russian Navy's Roslyakovo Shipyard in Murmansk. Once there, it was transferred to a dry dock where the weaponry and the remaining bodies of the crew were removed.[2]

The Russians said it was too risky to raise the remainder of the bow—possibly containing undetonated torpedoes—from the seabed floor. Some analysts theorized the Russians may also have wanted to prevent foreign countries from accessing the debris which had been classified as state secrets.[1][54] They decided to destroy the remains where they lay[54] and blew up the remnants of the bow in September 2002.[78]


The sinking of the ship, the pride of their submarine fleet, was a devastating blow to the Russian military.[5] The Kursk '​s participation in the exercise had been intended to demonstrate Russia's place as an important player on the international stage, but its inept handling of the crisis instead exposed its weak political decision-making ability and the decline of the country's military.[7] Finally recognizing the hazard of the HTP-fueled torpedoes, the Russian Navy ordered all of them to be removed from service.[8][79]

The hull of the ship was gradually opened and the bodies of all but three of the 118 personnel on board were recovered. Three were so badly destroyed that they could not be recovered.[33] 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 defueled and the ship was cut up for scrap.[4]

Accusations of cover-up[edit]

The Communist newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported 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 included reports that the ship's Captain Lyachin had allegedly sent a message to headquarters immediately prior to the explosion, "We have a malfunctioning torpedo. Request permission to fire it,"[5] though it is unlikely as Captain of the vessel that he would have requested permission under such circumstances.[16]

The Russian Navy was later criticized as misrepresenting facts and misleading the public.[1]:148 The navy feared that if it was revealed that the submarine blew up due to the incompetence of its crew, the supremacy of Russia's place as a great power would be in doubt.[40]:22

Their response was compared to the Soviet style of cover up and stonewalling like that during the Chernobyl disaster.[1]:148 Minister of Defence Sergeyev said in interviews on March 21, 2000, that he had never refused any foreign help.[1]: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.[42]

Officers moved[edit]

Putin accepted the resignation of Igor Sergeyev from his position as Minister of Defense on 28 March 2001 and made him his assistant on strategic stability. Putin replaced him with Sergei Ivanov, who had previously been secretary of the Security Council of Russia. The position of Minister of Defense had always been filled by a professional member of the military. Ivanov had retired from the military in 2000, so his appointment as a civilian as the Minister of Defense shocked the Russian military.[80][81]

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."[79] Shortly afterward, Putin transferred the Northern Fleet commander, Vyacheslav Popov, and his chief of staff, Admiral Mikhail Motsak.[45] As is common in such circumstances, both soon obtained equally notable jobs elsewhere in the government. Popov took a lateral job as a representative for the Murmansk region in the Federation Council, and Motsak became deputy presidential envoy for the North-Western Federal District.[51] 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.[1]:163 In another example of a lateral transfer, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov had been an outspoken advocate supporting 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.[79]

Putin dismissed the Northern Fleet's submarine commander, Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev,[1]: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,[8][51] 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.[17]:34 All were transferred to equal positions elsewhere in the government or in the business sector.[53]

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."[82]

Remains removed[edit]

While Russia was roundly criticised for its slow response, experts generally agreed afterward that there was little hope in rescuing the sailors trapped in the ninth compartment. The Russian rescue teams were poorly equipped and badly organized, while foreign teams and equipment were simply too far away.[7]

The remains of 115 dead crew members were removed from the wreck and buried in Russia. The remains of three of the crew members could not be identified and recovered. President Putin signed a decree and awarded the Order of Courage to the entire crew, and the title Hero of the Russian Federation to the submarine's captain, Gennady Lyachin.[83]

International cooperation[edit]

As a result of the disaster, Russia began participating in NATO search and rescue exercises during 2011. It was the first time a Russian submarine had taken part in a NATO led exercise.[84] The Russian Navy also increased the number of deep-sea divers trained each year from 18–20 to 40–45.[85]


Memorial to the men who died aboard the Kursk: "To sailors, died in peacetime".
Monument to sailors of submarine Kursk in the city of Kursk made from fragments of the submarine's hull
U.S. Navy sailors and Russian sailors during a wreath-laying ceremony in Murmansk, 2011

The torn sail of a submarine was used as a memorial at the submarine's home port, the Vidyayevo naval base. It lists the names of the crew members.[1] Outside the city of Severokvinsk where the sub was built, a large granite slab was erected on the sand dunes. It was 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."[19] The port city of Severodvinsk erected a small memorial. Other memorials were built in Moscow,[86] St. Petersburg, Sevastopol, Severomorsk and Kursk.[55] The city of Kursk erected a memorial to the submarine named after the city.

On 17 March 2009, a reporter from the newspaper Murmanskiy Vestnik found the deck cabin from the sail of the Kursk in a dump. It had been left there after several years of negotiations had failed to raise money for a memorial. The discovery sparked an outcry among citizens of Murmansk and they demanded it be turned into a memorial to the men who died.[87] After considerable difficulty, the memorial was finally completed and dedicated on Russian Navy's Day, on Sunday, 26 July 2009.[88] The inscription reads "To the submariners who died in peacetime". The memorial contains a "Path of Glory" lined with 118 birches, one for each sailor who died aboard the submarine. Twelve of the sailors are buried at the memorial.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Brannon, Robert (April 13, 2009). Russian civil-military Relations. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishers. p. 140. ISBN 978-0754675914. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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). Retrieved 3 July 2009. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Russian Sub Has 'Terrifying Hole'". 18 August 2000. Archived from the original on 1 January 2011. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c Potts, J.R. (5/9/2013). "K-141 Kursk Attack Submarine (1994)". MilitaryFactory.com. Retrieved 3 February 2014.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "What really happened to Russia's 'unsinkable' sub". The Guardian. 4 August 2001. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Kursk Relatives Make a Plea for Facts and Justice". St. Petersburg Times. 23 Feb 2001. Retrieved 18 February 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f "Final report blames fuel for Kursk disaster". BBC News. 1 July 2002. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Underwood, Lamar, ed. (2005). The Greatest Submarine Stories Ever Told: Dive! Dive! Fourteen Unforgettable Stories from the Deep. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press. ISBN 978-1592287338. 
  9. ^ a b c d e "Russian Submarine Kursk Catastrophe". Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Amundsen, Ingar; Lind, Bjørn; Reistad, Ole; Gussgaard, Knut; Iosjpe, Mikhail; Sickel, Morten (2001). "The Kursk Accident". Norway: Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. 
  11. ^ a b Faulconbridge, Guy (3 December 2004). "Nightmare at Sea". Moscow Times. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  12. ^ a b "Weapon". Weaponsystems.net. Retrieved 2013-02-06. 
  13. ^ Seismic Testimony from the Kursk
  14. ^ Hoffman, David E. (23 February 2003). "Uncovering The Kursk Cover Up". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Ryazantsev, Valery. "The death of the "Kursk"" (in Russian). Archived from the original on 13 June 2011. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Barany, Zoltan (2007). Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 32. ISBN 9781400828043. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Moore, Robert (2002). A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy. New York: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 9780307419699. 
  18. ^ a b c d e Burleson, Clyde (2002). Kursk Down! The Shocking True Story of the Sinking of a Russian Submarine. New York: Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-446-55456-5. 
  19. ^ a b c d "K-141 Kursk Accident". Global Security. Retrieved 10 February 2014. 
  20. ^ "BS-257 Project 940" (in Russian). Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  21. ^ a b c d e Wines, Michael (27 October 2000). "'None of Us Can Get Out' Kursk Sailor Wrote". New York Times. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Williams, Daniel (18 August 2000). "'Terrifying Hole' in Russian Sub". Washington Post Foreign Service. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  23. ^ "Project 18270 Bester submarine rescue vehicle". Global Security. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  24. ^ Higgins, Christopher. "Nuclear Submarine Disasters". Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
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Further reading[edit]

  • Simons, Greg (2012): Communicating Tragedy and Values Through the Mass Media During Crises: The Lessons of Submarine Accidents in Russia in Porfiriev, Boris & Simons, Greg (editors), Crises in Russia: Contemporary Management Policy and Practice from a Historical Perspective, Farnham, Ashgate, pp. 139–174.

External links[edit]