The secrets that drowned with Kursk

Kursk Memorial in Murmansk. Source: Christopher Michel / Flicr /

Kursk Memorial in Murmansk. Source: Christopher Michel / Flicr /

Today marks 10 years since one of the most tragic catastrophes in Russia’s modern history. On August 12, nuclear submarine missile cruiser Kursk, with 118 crew members on board, perished in the Barents Sea during exercises of the Northern Fleet.

Just days after the newest submarine, with one of the best crews had sunk, multiple rumors and speculations began to appear regarding the reasons for the accident. Ten year later, the Western press, as well as the Russian, are once again addressing the loss of the nuclear ship and are once again questioning the results of the General Prosecution’s official investigation, in which no guilty party was found. And of course, the relatives of the deceased seamen could never come to terms with losing their husbands, fathers, and sons.

So, what are the unquestionable facts? On August 10, 2000, nuclear powered submarine Kursk was released for training with the Northern Fleet. On the morning of August 12, it had launched a dummy Granit cruise missile at the fleet, headed by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the fleet’s flagship, nuclear cruiser Petr Veliky (Peter the Great). A few hours later, the submarine was supposed to finish off the alleged adversary with dummy torpedoes.

However, at the scheduled time, instead of a torpedo movement, the acoustic sensor operator of Petr Veliky had registered a blast, after which the ship was notably shaken. After hearing the report about the blast, Petr Veliky Commander, First Rank Captain Vladimir Kasatonov, did not consider it to be anything significant. Northern Fleet Commander Vyacheslav Popov, who was also aboard the cruiser, questioned as to what had happened. The response he got was: “radar antenna was turned on”.

In reality, the turbulence felt on the cruiser came from the explosions on the Kursk, which was 40 kilometers away from Petr Veliky.

What are some of the versions of what happened? The official version is based on the investigation results of the General Prosecutor’s Office.

A training torpedo, which was already in the torpedo launching tube and was prepared for the launch, had exploded. As a result of the explosion with a force equivalent to 300 kilograms of TNT, the entire crew of the first compartment of the submarine was killed. The manhole plate of the torpedo launcher and its tail traveled at the speed of 600-800 meters per second, destroying everything in their path. The remaining torpedoes blew up 136 seconds later. After this, the underwater crew of the submarine’s forward compartments was killed as a result of the explosion wave and the inflowing outside water. It should be mentioned that if a similar explosion took place in the air, then a cloud of smoke at least the size of a football field would have covered the sky. In this case, the explosion wave entered the submarine like a piston, tearing the firm bulkhead like paper.

The author of this article began dealing with the long arm of coincidence of the destruction of Kursk since the moment the official report was released on August 13; that “the vessel is lying on the seabed”, and until the moment the remains of the missile carrier were recovered and it was stationed at the Roslyakovo dock. Throughout this entire time, I have been updating the official website, where the latest information on the rescue operations was published online. Later, I spent a year writing for another publication about the course of the investigation. In 2004, an unexpected suggestion was made to write a screenplay and film a movie based on Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov’s book “Pravda o Kurske” (“The Truth About Kursk”). During our first meeting, I confessed to him that I don’t fully believe the official version of events, in which no responsible party for the catastrophe had been identified, and believe that the Prosecutor General’s Office is hiding something. Senior Investigator of High Priority Cases of the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office (GVP) Artur Egiev did not try to convince me about anything, and instead brought all 118 case files and another couple of dozen files with video addendums and said: “This is everything, you can study this and make your conclusions”. I once again found myself being skeptical – the case could have been falsified. Yes, it could have, agreed Egiev, but only if it was led by a single person. In this case, there was a brigade of almost 50 investigators, inspections were conducted by hundreds of experts from various organizations – from military to forensic and civil – and almost 1,000 witnesses were called to testify. If anyone had lied about something, then sooner or later the truth would have surfaced.

From then on, I had been going to the GVP on a daily basis – I was reading the case files, watching the videos, and drawing conclusions. Incidentally, the files, labeled “secret”, did not in any way relate to the secrets of the investigation – it was “ordinary” naval information, related to the specifics of training, which is typically classified as “secret”.

Initially, a criminal case was opened under the article on violation of ship navigation rules, which caused the collision and the loss of the boat, but by late August it became clear that the nearest Russian ship was 40 kilometers away from Kursk. Eighteen other versions remained, including one in which a torpedo is launched from a foreign vessel or a collision with a foreign vessel takes place, another assumes a mine that has been idle since the days of WWII had exploded, and one of the latest versions included an emergency situation on board, but no one took it seriously.

The primary was the American version. It was supported by the fact that a few weeks prior, Kursk returned from military service in the Mediterranean Sea. That was the time when NATO had its bombing campaign against Serbia. And Kursk did not only pass the Gibraltar Strait unnoticed twice, while it was literally loaded with anti-submarine equipment, but also managed to monitor America’s carrier fleet, while being literally just under the aircraft carrier. After this, a number of American naval commanders were released from their posts. They say that Kursk and Commander Lyachin nearly became a personal enemy of the US Navy. Therefore, it was logical to assume that Russians were being avenged.

How did investigators of the Prosecutor General’s Office respond? At that time, when bodies were brought to surface, pieces of the first section of the submarine were lifted at the same time – several tons of debris, in which not a single piece of a foreign vessel, torpedo or explosive material was found. The collision version remained – American submarine Memphis, which was clearly damaged, appeared in Norway on August 18. “[It’s comparable to] a collision between a Zaporozhets and KAMAZ,” commented the designer of Kursk, Igor Baranov. The tonnage of our submarine was twice greater than that of the American submarine, and in case of a collision, Memphis would not only have been damaged – it would have crumbled. Moreover, the body of Kursk was designed in such a way that it could sustain a small nuclear explosion, not to mention an ordinary torpedo launch.

After the submarine was brought to the surface, every one saw the convincing hole near the fourth section. This prompted a conclusion that this was the place of impact from a torpedo. Following inspections it was revealed that there was not an outside impact on the body, and the hole was the result of a massive explosion, due to which the pressure hull had literally folded like a harmonica. Due to the deformation, our rescue vessels from Rudnitsky could not stick to the emergency manhole in the ninth sector – swaying in the water between the open sea and the cabin.

As for the version in which the surviving seamen in the ninth sector lived for several days and could have been rescued, investigators and forensic experts give a definite answer – they could not have.

After the explosion, 23 people survived in the stern of the boat. They were headed by Captain Lt. Dmitry Kolesnikov. Together with the other survivors, he made a decision: to remain in the 9th compartment, which had not lost its symmetry, and wait for help. “Looks as though we don’t have much chance. About 10-20 percent,” Dmitry Kolesnikov wrote in the dark. The last passage is dated 15:15, August 12 – that is four hours after the explosion. Why didn’t they get out? Investigators say that they most likely did not have enough time. Another tragic event took place in the 9th compartment – the regeneration plate, which makes oxygen from carbon dioxide, exploded upon making contact with water. This happened right in Kolesnikov’s hands, who died on the spot. According to forensic experts, the remaining officers died seconds later from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The criminal case had other things that were impossible to falsify. For example, why didn’t the emergency buoy surface and Kursk was not immediately rescued? As it turned out, the buoy activation key, which is located in one of the posts inside the submarine, was not only inactive – it was simply never installed. Most investigators put their hopes in the log-books and on-board recorders. The log-books were found, but not a word was mentioned about the accident. Kursk’s so-called black box was also found – the twisted recorder Snegir. Experts did the impossible – they were able to reconstruct tape that rested for a year in the water at the depth of 100 meters.

The last recording was a report about successful shootings with Granit, later the tape reel included recordings of music and sounds of Killer Whales, which were broadcast in the interior communication system, instead of (as it should have had) recordings of all the commands that were made aboard. Many other small and bigger violations were identified, but, according to investigators, they all had nothing to do with the catastrophe and had in no way affected it. Therefore, no one blamed the crew.

So, what is the reason for the deaths, if Americans and the crew are not responsible? The reason is the explosion of a practical 650-millimeter torpedo, or to be more exact, an oxidizer tank. Why are investigators confident that this is the case? Because fragments of the tale part of this ill-fated torpedo were found, as well as the torn oxidizer tank, in which the initial explosion took place. In the course of several months, the Forensic Institute of FSB had conducted explosion tests. An analogous torpedo was thrown from great heights onto concrete slabs, with fire underneath. Several kilograms of explosives were placed under the oxidizer tank. The results were the same – no explosion took place. Experts concluded that the tank could not have been affected from the outside – the explosion could only have taken place inside.

But, neither investigators nor experts could answer the main question of what caused the explosion. Assumptions have been made about the human factor: from the moment it submerged, Kursk had not used the torpedo. But, it is hard to imagine that the crew could not have possibly neglected to monitor the capricious torpedo and not use hydrogen peroxide, especially because there had been a minor flagship division of submarines on board, which knew the torpedo like the back of their hand. Perhaps, it could have been a manufacturing defect. Perhaps, something went wrong when loading the torpedo launcher. The mystery of August 12, 2000 will remain unsolved on the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Declassified Information

Ten years ago, when the investigation was ongoing, information on three emergency situations, encountered by the seamen who were participating in the operation to bring the deceased officers and the submarine back to surface, became public.

Today, the tragedies that had nearly happened at the depths of the sea can be revealed. Not many know this, but during the rescue mission, the lifting of the submarine out of the water and inspections on the Roslyakov dock, the distressed vessel had almost claimed the lives of several more people.

The first time this happened was when our divers were working on the hull of Kursk. When the operation to bring the bodies to the surface began, and it became clear that the divers were unable to fit into the manhole of the 9th compartment, the decision was made to cut an access hole in the 8th sector, through which the boat was to be entered. The first person to descend to Kursk was Commander of the 328th expeditionary detachment of the Naval Forces, Hero of Russia, Andrey Zvyagnitsev. During the underwater cutting, a small oxygen bubble suddenly burst. Seemingly, that is not a terrible thing – but this mini-explosion was enough to damage the respiratory capsule in the diving helmet. Sea water started to immediately enter the helmet – which was happening at the depth of 100 meters and with the temperature of about 4 degrees Celsius. The water had already reached his eye level, when Zvyagintsev managed to swim to the diving bell. Five minutes later, after restoring the capsule, the diver returned to Kursk. Foreign colleagues on board of the rescue boat were in shock.

The cleanup of debris in the twisted compartments had almost ended tragically. No one could imagine that after such a massive explosion, undetonated parts of torpedoes still remained on Kursk. One FSB bomb specialist by chance saw how investigators were cleaning the path before them, and pushing some pieces of junk that looked like foam with their feet. He quickly realized that this was an explosive. All work was immediately stopped. Indeed, several dozen of kilograms of explosives were found. The next day, a 250 kg warhead with an igniting set was found. Investigators were saved by the fact that it was not loaded.

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