Death Watch

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For Captain Gennadi Lyachin and nearly a score of others crowded into the control room of the nuclear submarine Kursk, Saturday, Aug. 12, was to be a day of pride and triumph. The vessel, one of the Russian navy's newest and most powerful cruise missile submarines, was at periscope depth during the second day of a 30-ship exercise in the Barents Sea some 150 km northeast of Murmansk. They were the biggest Russian naval maneuvers in several years, and it was a rare opportunity for Lyachin to put his boat through its paces with a full-scale task force so rare that five high-ranking Northern Fleet staff officers were aboard to observe the exercise. By noon, the Kursk had successfully completed a torpedo firing run and was preparing for another. Lyachin, 45, one of Russia's most experienced submarine officers, radioed the task force commander for permission to fire. The transmission was monitored by the American surveillance ship U.S.N.S. Loyal, lurking about 300 km west-northwest of the Kursk, as was the commander's "Permission granted." But instead of the sounds of torpedoes blown from launch tubes, sonar operators aboard U.S. submarines working with the Loyal heard two explosions, one short and sharp, the second an enormous, thundering boom. A Norwegian seismic institute also recorded the explosions, and said the second carried the force of two tons of tnt, registering 3.5 on the Richter Scale.

Evidence later obtained from underwater cameras show that the blast tore open the entire, double-hulled forward section of the 154-m vessel, an area the size of a school gymnasium. Seawater would have slammed into the torpedo and cruise missile compartments, instantly killing the men on duty there. In the control room just aft of the shattered weapons compartments, Lyachin, the five staff officers and the dozen or so officers and petty officers manning the ship's controls would have had no time to react before the combined power of the blast and seawater tore through, destroying the gleaming arrays of switches, computers and video screens that constitute the "brain" of a submarine. All would have been killed outright or quickly drowned. From there, the water is likely to have cascaded through passageways and doors into the "sail," the conning tower above the control room, and into communications spaces and living quarters just aft of the sail. At that point the floodwaters were probably thwarted by thick, watertight bulkheads guarding the twin VM-5 pressurized water reactors powering the submarine.

Even so, there would be no salvation for the men whose duties placed them in the reactor control rooms and the turbine and machinery spaces behind the reactors. The flash flooding in the forward part of the Kursk would have caused the bow to drop, putting the 14,000-ton boat into a steep dive with steam turbines still delivering power to its twin screws. In seconds, it would have pounded into the seabed some 108 m beneath the storm-driven surface of the Barents Sea with a shock that would have hurled survivors against equipment and bulkheads. Finally, as the boat settled onto the ocean floor, openings along the keel would probably no longer have been able to draw in seawater needed to cool the reactors. Automatic systems would instantly "scram" the reactors, pushing control rods into the core and shutting them down. The Kursk, its shattered bow shoved into a furrow of sand and heeling to port, lay silent, without power or heat or light or hope, all 118 souls on board dead or doomed.

"The majority of the crew were in the part of the boat that was hit by the catastrophe that developed at lightning speed," said Ilya Klebanov, Deputy Prime Minister and head of a commission investigating the sinking. It was all over, he said on Thursday, "in the space of two minutes, more or less." The tapping out of sos signals in Morse code indicated that some crew members survived for a time in the stern sections of the boat, but Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, admitted on Friday evening that no tapping had been heard from the sub after Aug. 14, two days after the accident.

Those who did survive the initial flooding would have come to envy their dead comrades. Dying always seems more gruesome when it is in slow motion, and slow-motion submarine deaths are perversely compelling because they happen in shallow water within reach of rescuers. Men who have been trapped in stricken submarines say the crew of the Kursk would have suffered from cold as temperatures fell to 5C and severe headaches as levels of carbon dioxide rose in the smothering atmosphere. They would suffer, too, from fear and hopelessness as rescuers repeatedly tried, and failed, to save them. "Those guys can hear the minisubs," said a U.S. Navy officer. "Listening to that for any length of time as you're slowly suffocating would drive anyone nuts."

Rescue efforts were at first hampered by high winds and waves of 4 m, but even after the weather improved on Tuesday rescue teams proved unable to attach either a Kolokol diving bell or an AS-34 submersible rescue craft to an escape hatch on the stern section. Crewmen on the rescue vessels said powerful currents and near-zero visibility hampered attempts to approach the submarine, and even when they reached it, the port list made docking difficult.

By the end of the week, any men still alive would have been steadily sliding toward death. As the CO2 level rose, their brains would slowly turn off, as if on a dimmer switch; consciousness would ebb to coma, and reality fade to black. MORE>>

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It remained unclear what caused the loss of the Kursk. Russian officials fell back on old Soviet habits of secrecy and confusion during the first days of the disaster. They made no announcement for two days before issuing a bland statement that there had been a "technical fault" and the boat was on the sea bottom. After the seriousness of the accident became clearer, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev declared that there was "incontrovertible evidence" the sub had collided with another vessel. In past years Soviet and American vessels have had near-collisions while spying on each other, but the Pentagon firmly rejected any suggestion that the U.S. submarines were involved. Later, Russian officials dropped the collision claim and blamed an explosion in the weapons area, a theory supported by Western experts who said it could have come from a torpedo or missile or a high-pressure air tank used to blow ballast water when surfacing. According to Jane's Fighting Ships, the Kursk would normally carry 24 cruise missiles able to deliver either 750 kg of high explosive or a nuclear warhead a distance of 500 km, plus as many as 28 torpedoes with similar warhead capability (although the Russians said the Kursk was carrying no nuclear weapons under the terms of an agreement with the U.S. that neither side will deploy tactical nuclear weapons).

By week's end, Klebanov had gone back to the collision theory, saying the sub hit a "huge, heavy object," something of "very large tonnage" that tore open the boat's double hull but he offered no suggestions about what the object might have been, and there were no reports of a surface ship in the area with what would have been severe hull damage.

Whatever the direct cause of the disaster, the Kursk was doomed as much by underfunding, insufficient training and incompetent military management as by collision or high explosives. Since the end of the cold war the Russian navy has declined from 613 ships of all types to around 95 today, a drop of 84%, compared to around 40% for Western navies. Of those few ships remaining in the Russian inventory only about 10% are fit to put to sea. One reason is that the bulk of Russia's dwindling defense budget goes to the army and air force to fight the war in Chechnya. That means little money for maintenance, and the result can be seen in naval bases all around Russia where ships lie in rusting rows, crewed by unmotivated and often unpaid sailors whose skills are also rusting away. "Because of poor maintenance levels across much of the fleet, the fleet can't put to sea very often, so personnel are less well trained," says Joanna Kidd, naval analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Kursk, as one of the newest and most important boats in the fleet, would have received enough to keep up maintenance, but probably not enough to keep up vital seatime training. "It's speculation, but their reactions might have been slow" as the accident developed, says Kidd. Similarly, the rescue efforts may have suffered from lack of training. "If most of the Russian navy can hardly put to sea, then it's doubtful whether they have practiced this type of [rescue] operation very often."

The exercise in which the Kursk was lost was part of President Vladimir Putin's declared intention to rebuild the navy at least to the levels of the French and British fleets, if not to the size and might of the U.S. Navy. It was intended to be a dress rehearsal for a show-of-force cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean later this year to be led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the battle cruiser Peter the Great. Losing the Kursk is a major setback for these plans, and for Putin's naval ambitions. "He has aligned himself personally with the revival of the navy's fortunes," says Kidd. "This is a big humiliation for him."

Perhaps that's why Putin had so little to say as the magnitude of the disaster unfolded. He left for his summer vacation retreat in Sochi on the day of the accident and sent no messages of concern or condolence to the fleet or families of the missing men. His officially published schedule told of telephone calls with foreign leaders but made no mention of briefings, consultations or expressions of concern about the Kursk. On Wednesday, dressed casually and looking tanned, he met a group of visiting academics with whom he discussed at relaxed length problems of science, research and the brain drain. After the meeting, in response to journalists' questions, he reluctantly acknowledged that the situation with the Kursk was "critical" and said that "all necessary and possible efforts to save the crew have been carried out."

Not quite. For crucial days, Russian officials had rejected Western offers of help, including the dispatch of U.S., French, British and Norwegian rescue equipment. But, perhaps stung by the questions, Putin on Wednesday ordered the navy to accept Western offers. The Russians promptly invited Norway and Britain to send equipment, but by then it was already a near-certainty that the survivors would perish before the rescuers could reach them. Indeed, shortly before the British team arrived on Saturday the Northern Fleet commander said that "The critical line of survivability has been crossed."

The Russian handling of the accident was a mixture of "pride, arrogance, secrecy and sloppiness," says Paul Beaver, former naval editor of Jane's Defence Weekly in London. "When an accident happens the Russians don't seem to be able to cope with it. They don't have flexible thinking." The prime example of that attitude was the explosion of a reactor at Chernobyl in 1986. Then, too, officials attempted to cover up the seriousness of the accident, refused Western assistance and bungled the subsequent cleanup. That does not bode well for salvaging the wreck of the Kursk, with its weapons and reactors.

Officials have talked of attaching floats to the hulk, inflating them and lifting it to the surface. But with much of the hull flooded, the 14,000-ton Kursk could now be a waterlogged 30,000 tons, even more difficult to handle in the cold and turbulence of the Barents Sea. A chilling but possible alternative would be for the Russians to leave it on the seabed, along with the six other nuclear submarines, four of them Russian, that have sunk in the age of the atom. The double steel hull of the Kursk will provide some containment for the reactors, which are themselves encased in heavy steel pressure vessels. And the cold black submarine would provide a grim but poignant memorial for the 118 sailors who served, and died, in her.

With reporting by Helen Gibson/London, Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington and Yuri Zarakhovich/Murmansk