Focus: Russia's submarine catastrophe

Yesterday they all but gave up hope for survivors of the doomed Kursk. Jason Burke, Ian Traynor and Amelia Gentleman report on the devastating events that destroyed the submarine and humiliated Russia's military might: Putin thought putting himself at the head of a lost cause would hurt his image. His inaction was politically costly. For the first time, he was seen to falter

Every morning for the last week, Admiral Vyacheslav Alexeyevich Popov has paced the bridge of the Peter the Great, the nuclear-powered Kirov-class cruiser which is the flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet. Every morning the view has been the same.

As the dim Arctic night has lifted, he has seen the same ships rolling with the heavy swell of the Barents Sea, felt the wind tugging at his gold-braided peaked cap and watched the same men send the same inadequate machines into the frigid waters. Three hundred and fifty-seven feet below, on the ocean floor, lies submarine K-141, the Kursk: a 500ft, 14,000- tonne, double-hulled Oscar-II class submarine. On board are an undisclosed number of torpedoes and missiles (each with 1,000lb warheads), two nuclear reactors (each capable of producing as much power as one of the smaller British power stations) and, almost certainly now, the corpses of 118 men.

Nine days ago, 45 year-old Gennady Lyachev, the captain of the Kursk, was relaxing in his quarters at the submarine base of Vidyayevo. For a week his crew had been waiting. Now, finally, they had been given the go-ahead.

At about 8.30am on Saturday morning, he took the Kursk north down the wide Kola inlet to join the rest of the famed Northern Fleet 50 miles out in the shallow Barents Sea. By 10am it was in position. Around the sub, 33 warships checked and turned and tested their weapons systems under a blank sky.

Twelve miles away from the Kursk's position, a Norwegian intelligence vessel, the Marjata, was rolling with the heavy swell. Two American submarines, out playing the Cold War game of Arctic cat-and-mouse with the Russian fleet, were also close by. The Northern Fleet's summer manoeuvres allow the West to judge the capabilities of the Russian navy. But after days of observation nothing of real interest had turned up.

At 10.31am on Saturday, something did. Listening devices on the Marjata picked up a muffled explosion. Analysts took it to be a depth charge. But 2 minutes 11 seconds later came a far bigger blast. Even the USS Loyal, an American acoustic data-gathering vessel 250 miles away, heard it. Within an hour the observers noticed the Northern Fleet's deployment change radically. Something dreadful had happened.

We know that at 10.29 the Kursk was engaged in a weapons-firing exercise with the rest of the fleet. It would have been at 'periscope depth' - around 100ft. The Kursk has six torpedo tubes in its bows and silos for 12 more missiles - probably SS-N19 'Shipwrecks' with a range of 300 miles - stored along its sides.

When it was the submarine's turn to loose one of these formidable weapons, Captain Lyachin would have given the order to fire and waited for the shuddering roar of the outgoing projectile and the reports of his gunners. But it seems that one of the missiles prematurely detonated while firing. Some think it was an SS-N19 in a vertical launcher. Others say it was probably an SS-N16 'Stallion' fired from a torpedo tube in the bows.

The explosion blasted a massive hole on the right side of the bows of the sub. The Kursk would have twisted and bucked under the blast and then lurched sickeningly down and to the right as the water jetted in through the torn hull. Anyone in the forwardmost of the sub's 10 bulkheads who had survived the explosion would have been smashed unconscious by the blasting sea and killed almost instantly. They wouldn't even have known they were drowning.

In the control room, Lyachin had only a few seconds to react. He would have issued three or four terse orders. 'It's not like the films,' said Richard Sharpe, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships and a former nuclear submarine captain. 'Submarine captains don't shout.'

First, the captain would have ordered the Kursk's ballast tanks to be 'blown' or filled with air to boost the ailing sub's buoyancy. As forward movement also keeps a crippled sub afloat, he would also have ordered the reactors to be cranked up to generate maximum speed. Then, if he had time, he would have paused to take stock.

However, he almost certainly did not have time. Even if sailors in the forward bulkheads moved fast enough to shut the water-tight doors the enormous pressure of the water would have simply blasted them open again. Hundreds of tonnes of freezing cold water would been jetting into Lyachin's control room before any emergency procedures could be activated. The veteran seaman simply had no chance to save his ship. Within seconds he was going down with it.

With its forward third full of water, the Kursk tipped downwards and headed for the seabed. The explosion ruptured the right ballast tank and the imbalance would have given the sub the 12 to 20 degrees list that Russian officials have reported.

A submarine under control would take 95 seconds under normal conditions to dive 350ft. The Kursk, with its 50,000-horsepower reactors driving it down nose first, would have taken less than half that time. Two minutes and 15 seconds after the first explosion, the Norwegian listeners aboard the Marjata recorded a second explosion, far bigger than the first. It was, they said, the equivalent of around two tonnes of high-explosive and measured 3.5 on the Richter scale. It blew out the whole of the front right section of the sub, buckling its hull as far back as the conning tower. By the time of the second blast - almost certainly other munitions going off - the vessel was probably on the ocean floor. No mayday had been sent, no emergency beacons released, no flares sent to the surface. It had all happened too fast.

Every ship in the Northern Fleet must have known something terrible had happened. At 11.30am the submarine failed to make a pre-arranged radio contact. Nearly 14 hours later, at 3.21am, the operator of a sonic depth finder on board the Peter the Great informed Admiral Popov that he had registered an 'abnormality' on the seabed. It was the Kursk.

Six hours later the first specialist rescue ships were in place above the stricken submarine. For a day the story was kept from the press. Then it leaked. When the questions started coming at them, the navy spokesmen stalled. They were in touch with the crew, they said. There was air and power on board the sub. They were 'confident of a positive outcome'.

The truth was very different. When, on Sunday morning, President Putin asked Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev what chance they had of saving the crew, he got a blunt answer. 'Extremely small,' Sergeyev said.

From Sunday to Thursday last week a fierce storm battered the Barents Sea. The Kolokol-class diving bells that were the first option of the rescuers were useless as their motherships rolled up and down with the swell. Making a connection to the Kursk's rear escape hatch proved impossible.

Instead three mini-submarines were deployed. But though the craft dived round the clock, thick clouds of silt and strong currents made it impossible to find the hatch, let alone connect to it. When - on Friday morning - one of the subs did connect, the crew found that the hatch was so misshapen that an airtight connection was impossible.

Now rescue hopes depend on a British state-of-the-art 'Slingsby LP5' mini-sub that is on a private exclusive contract to the Royal Navy. It was only on Wednesday, when Putin finally gave permission for the rescuers to accept Western offers of help, that the sub, its crew and support team were flown in an Antonov cargo plane from Scotland to Trondheim in Norway. From there they have been making their way on a Norwegian ship towards the Barents Sea. For the sailors and their relatives, the LP5 is the last hope.

The contrast between the grim 'secret cities' of the north and Sochi's Bocharov Ruchei, the sumptuous sprawling complex by the Black Sea converted into a presidential retreat by Boris Yeltsin, could not be greater. There are tennis courts, swimming pools, cinemas and exclusive beaches. For a week, as the drama being played out under the Arctic seas 2,000 miles to the north gripped the nation, Putin obstinately stayed put.

While millions of Russians were glued to their TV screens, watching the drama unfold, the commander-in-chief seemed indifferent to the fate of the 118 Kursk crewmen. His official engagements included appointing new Russian Ambassadors to Jamaica and Chile, sending a 70th birthday card to a well-known actress, and debating Russia's brain-drain with a group of professors.

It was five days before he made his first, brief statement on the crisis. On Wednesday, after a 25-minute phone call from President Clinton, he finally gave the green light for the British to get involved. Then, on Friday, he suddenly announced that his first thought when he learnt of the disaster was that he should be there. He didn't go because he didn't want to be in the way, he said.

It was a singularly unconvincing performance, coming after two days of unprecedentedly vicious attacks in the Moscow press. But the political logic for his silence is clear.

Chatting from Sochi by phone on Tuesday evening with Ehud Barak, the embattled Israeli Prime Minister, Putin is said to have told him that it was already too late for the Kursk seamen. The ex-KGB man clearly thought that putting himself at the head of a lost cause was not going to do his action-man image any good at all.

But he miscalculated. His inaction was politically costly. For the first time in his time in power, Putin was seen to falter. The politicians and the senior naval officers, once almost legendary figures inspiring awe and respect, now were the target of very different emotions.

Ilya Klebanov, the Deputy Prime Minister who Putin appointed to head the government inquiry into the accident, was mauled by the wives of the seamen who hurled abuse at the authorities, weeping, fainting and screaming at a meeting at the Kursk's home garrison of Vidyayevo, 30 miles from Murmansk.

And the admirals' bungling, lying, and arrogance triggered a wave of popular revulsion. The newspapers contrasted Putin's vanishing act with how Western leaders, in the age of television democracy, take charge at times of national disasters or humanitarian emergencies.

The top brass and the Kremlin elite just didn't understand, the commentators said. It's the same old story, they alleged. It's the traditional Russian elite's contempt for the lives of Russian servicemen and the suffering of their families. We thought Putin was different, they said. We were wrong.

The fate of the Kursk has struck a chord across the nation in a way not witnessed in years.

The huge steel tomb on the bed of the Barents Sea has become a symbol of all the grievances, the pent-up frustrations, the anger and the disappointment in contemporary Russia.

And while Putin sunned himself in Sochi, the mood inside the navy headquarters in Moscow was getting more bitter by the hour. The atmosphere was 'openly menacing', said a source. 'The admirals are just going through the motions.'

'See if the British can do any better,' said one officer sourly.

Few now think there will be anyone left for the British to help. Until Tuesday, someone was heard tapping SOS messages on the hull of the Kursk. Since then, however, there has been nothing. No radio contact, no sonar telephone, nothing.

Russian officials believe that at least a third of the crew were dead before the Kursk hit the bottom. The areas damaged, and thus flooded, include the sub's accommodation areas. Richard Sharpe, a retired British submariner, believes that the only bulkheads that would have held back the waters are those protecting the twin nuclear reactors in the middle of the vessel. He thinks the rear half of the sub - including the reactor control room and the vast chambers housing the transmission - would have been relatively undamaged.

There are usually 20 sailors on shift in these areas. The huge 190-megawatt reactors could provide them with light and clean air and, though they would have been without water and food, they could have sat tight until someone got to them.

But, the Russian navy says, the reactors are not running. The emergency shut- down procedures may have been activated by the shock of the accident but experts say that is unlikely. The crew probably closed them down themselves, as they had been trained to do in the event of a disaster or just in the fearful confusion. They would have been unable to restart them.

The lights would have gone out and the cold become intense. The water at that depth is almost freezing. It would have been like sitting in a dark, meat fridge at the bottom of a 400ft-deep swimming pool. Within 48 hours the air would have started to go bad. The Kursk's 'air scrubbers' - which process the foul air - would have needed power to function. Any batteries would have been quickly exhausted. Weak and traumatised, the men would be increasingly prone to hypothermia.

The build-up of exhaust gases would have made their condition worse. Normal air is 4 per cent carbon dioxide. When the level reaches 5 per cent, severe headaches and nausea start. Co-ordination and mobility start to suffer. When the level reaches 10 per cent most humans lose consciousness. They don't slip away, but lie choking and gasping in pain and terror until the darkness finally closes in. The men in the front of the Kursk died in seconds as a wall of water crushed and filled their lungs with water. The men at the rear followed an identical physiological path, but much, much more slowly.

Yesterday, the eighth day of the crisis, residents from the closed town of Vidyayevo, where the Kursk command is based, said that the atmosphere was extremely tense. Relatives of the trapped submariners had gathered in the town, where they were being cared for by counsellors.

A special train arrived yesterday morning bringing the mothers of the conscript sailors to the bleak shores were their young sons once lived and trained.

The people of Vidyayevo know all about disaster. Eleven years ago, 120 men died when another submarine, the Komsomolets, caught fire and sank. Every year dozens of fresh wreaths are scattered over the sea in memorial.

Next year there will be scores more.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Russia's once-feared Northern Fleet lies rusting and radioactive
For 50 years the Northern Fleet was the pride of the USSR. From secret ports along Russia's Arctic coast, the iron ships ruled the steel-grey waves with a mailed fist. Beneath the waters, a formidable submarine fleet, diesel and then nuclear powered, chased intruding Americans away. Now the fleet is a shadow of its former self. It poses a greater threat to the environment than the West.

Jason Burke

19, Aug, 2000 @11:04 PM

What really happened to Russia's 'unsinkable' sub
It was supposed to be unsinkable. It could even withstand a direct hit from a torpedo attack. The Kursk was a leviathan with an almost mythical reputation as a war machine. This gargantuan nuclear submarine, the size of two jumbo jets, was the pride of the Russian navy.

05, Aug, 2001 @2:10 AM

Sticken submarine crew 'killed in sub blast'
The Russian authorities yesterday disclosed that the stricken Kursk submarine lying at the bottom of the Barents sea had suffered much greater damage than initially believed, making it highly likely that many of the crew, the vessel's commanding officers and other more senior navy officers died instantly last Saturday.

Ian Traynor in Moscow

18, Aug, 2000 @12:48 AM

Note reveals 23 survived initial Kursk blast
A note that was found on one of four bodies raised from the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, revealed today that at least 23 people remained alive after powerful explosions killed most of the crew.

Staff and agencies

26, Oct, 2000 @10:49 AM

Article image
He cheated death, but can Navalny ever break Putin’s grip on Russia?
Now in recovery after a novichok attack, the opposition leader has pledged to return home to campaign ahead of elections next year. But the odds are stacked against him

Shaun Walker in Tomsk

04, Oct, 2020 @8:00 AM

After Kohl, the deluge
Helmut Kohl moved through his cheering supporters in Bremen on Friday night like a hero returned from battle, stopping here and there to grasp a hand or exchange a warm word. When he reached the platform, the 4,000-strong gathering of Christian Democrat activists clapped, cheered and roared their approval of the man who had resigned in disgrace as their honorary chairman three days earlier.

23, Jan, 2000 @12:53 AM

Article image
Lyudmila Ulitskaya: why I'm not afraid of Vladimir Putin
Lyudmila Ulitskaya has shown she is not afraid to take on the Kremlin over jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the right to freedom of expression

Elizabeth Day

16, Apr, 2011 @11:04 PM

Article image
How the influx of new global elites is changing the face of Europe
New wealth, especially from China and Russia, is having a dramatic impact on European tourism, cities and traditional rural havens

Conal Urquhart

09, Mar, 2013 @9:51 PM

America turns the clock back to Cold War returns to return as as Bush gets tough
At dawn on a small wooden bridge in New Mexico, Klaus Fuchs once passed the blueprint for the H-bomb to Harry Gold, his handler from President Vladimir Putin's old employer, the KGB.

Ed Vulliamy in New York

25, Mar, 2001 @3:54 AM

Focus: When hell came calling at Beslan's School No 1
It started with children laughing and ended in gunfire and slaughter - a 53- hour siege that horrified the world. Nick Paton Walsh and Peter Beaumont tell the inside story of an atrocity that turned to chaos.

Nick Paton Walsh and Peter Beaumont

04, Sep, 2004 @11:49 PM