When Massive Explosions Ripped Through A Russian Nuclear Sub, The Consequences Were Catastrophic

On the morning of August 12, 2000, the mighty Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk is sailing through the Barents Sea as part of a large-scale naval exercise. On the vessel, submariners are loading a dummy torpedo – one with a propulsion system but no warhead – into one of the Kursk’s launching tubes. And what happens next shocks not only the Russian nation, but also the whole world – although the true scale of the horror wouldn’t be unveiled until much later.

For some reason, that dummy torpedo – even though it lacked a warhead – exploded at 11:27 a.m. This blast then ignited an intense fire in the forward bulkhead where the torpedo tubes were located, with the blaze likely killing the seven Russian sailors in that section almost instantaneously.

But while the torpedo explosion was disastrous enough, the catastrophe that overtook the Kursk was only just beginning. The vessel wasn’t just carrying neutered weapons; there were also fully armed missiles on board. And, horrifically, that first explosion was enough to set off a chain reaction that saw the other munitions explode.

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There had been brief respite for the 111 remaining crew who survived that first blast, although we can only guess what had been going through their minds during that two minutes and 14 seconds of reprieve. Then, however, things went from bad to truly terrible for the men of the Kursk.

Up to seven torpedoes – each armed with a 990-pound warhead – now exploded in the bow of the submarine. And the outcome was horrendous; indeed, seismic equipment intended to measure earthquakes detected the force of this violent conflagration as far away as Alaska. This blast catastrophically ruptured the sub’s hull, spelling the end for everyone on the submarine who had survived the first two explosions.

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And make no mistake: the loss of this nuclear submarine may have dented the prestige of both Russia and its leadership. Yes, the Kursk had been viewed as an invulnerable symbol of naval power; her very name seemed to indicate her significance for Russian pride, in fact.

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You see, while the craft had officially been named after the city of Kursk, its moniker also evoked a key Second World War battle. And the Battle of Kursk was central to Russia’s view of itself. The summer 1943 operation – one of the biggest confrontations in human history – had seen the Soviet Red Army turn the tide against the Nazi invaders of Russia. The victory had also led inexorably to the fall of Berlin two years later.

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So any vessel bearing the name Kursk was one that carried a heavy weight of national history and prestige. Appropriately, then, the K-141 Kursk – to give her her full title – was an exceptional standard bearer for the Russian Navy. The vessel’s life had begun in 1990 when construction commenced at the Soviet Navy military shipyards at Severodvinsk in northern Russia.

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Yet even back then, the omens may not have been good; at this time, the Soviet Union was collapsing. And so when the Kursk was launched in 1994, she was a Russian rather than a Soviet ship. The boat was an Antey class vessel and represented the pinnacle of Soviet-developed nuclear submarine technology.

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The Russian Navy commissioned the submarine in December 1994, after which she joined the Northern Fleet operating in the Arctic Ocean. And the Kursk was an undeniably menacing addition to this force. Indeed, the Antey submarines were each designed to be capable of defeating a U.S. Navy carrier strike group in its entirety.

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As well as an aircraft carrier, a typical U.S. carrier group included a cruiser equipped with guided missiles, up to two anti-submarine warships or two frigates or destroyers that also possessed anti-submarine capabilities. So that she could take on such a powerful American flotilla, the Kursk carried an impressive array of high-powered armaments, including both missiles and torpedoes.

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The Kursk’s weaponry included, for example, potentially deadly 24 SS-N-19/P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles that each boasted a range of 340 miles. Once at an altitude of 12 miles, these projectiles could hurtle towards their targets at almost 2,000 mph. The submarine’s bow, meanwhile, was equipped with eight launch tubes that could fire anti-ship missiles up to 31 miles from their intended targets.

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Plus, as we mentioned earlier, the Kursk was carrying armed as well as dummy torpedoes when it was on that exercise in August 2000. And these Type 65 torpedoes were terrifyingly powerful; just one, armed with its 990-pound warhead, could sink an aircraft carrier. Perhaps most ominously of all, though, the submarine’s respective missiles and torpedoes could also deliver nuclear payloads.

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So the Kursk’s assault capabilities were frighteningly impressive. If needed, though, the 505-foot long vessel also had exceptional survival abilities. The vessel featured a twin-hulled structure, with the external hull constructed using a steel, nickel and chrome alloy that was one-third of an inch thick and cloaked by up to three inches of rubber. This outer frame was also designed to resist both rusting and U.S. detection systems.

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A gap up to 79 inches wide separated the outer and inner hulls, with the interior structure made from steel two inches thick that was designed to resist deep-water pressure. Indeed, the boat’s design allowed it to stay submerged for up to 120 days. And thanks to special reinforcement, the sail, or conning tower, that sat atop the hull could even function as an icebreaker.

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Yet despite the Kursk’s impressive stats, she actually saw very little service to begin with. Yes, in the five years after her commission, the submarine sailed on only one six-month mission: to monitor the movements of the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet. Why? Well, the Russian navy was severely strapped for cash and couldn’t afford the fuel bills to actually deploy the submarine.

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The next time the Kursk sailed after that, then, was to take part in a full-scale Russian naval exercise that was codenamed Summer-X. Summer-X, which started on August 10, 2000, was the first major Russian Navy training operation in ten years. And some 30 ships took part – with the Kursk among the four submarines utilized.

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Perhaps the Kursk’s submariners were in buoyant mood, too, since they had just won an award as the Northern Fleet’s best crew. And they had the honor – such as it was – of carrying a full load of live munitions, since the Kursk was one of the rare Russian naval vessels always allowed to sail with deadly armaments aboard.

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However, on August 12, 2000 – a few seconds before 11:30 a.m. – the first evidence that something had gone drastically wrong was actually a seismic signal recorded in Norway and elsewhere. Equipment noted a minor tremor of 1.5 on the Richter scale, although that’s regarded as mild; each year, observers generally record some 900,000 events of 2.5 and below on the Richter scale around the world.

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Naturally enough, at this stage no one was connecting the tremor – which was located about 160 miles from Norway in the Barents Sea – with a Russian submarine. Then, just over two minutes later, came a much stronger tremor measuring 4.2 on the Richter scale. That made it 250 times stronger than the first reading.

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And the first tremor, of course, was caused by the explosion of the dummy Type 65 torpedo. Somewhat unflatteringly, Russian sailors nicknamed these stubby, 35-foot long weapons tolstushka, meaning “fat girl.” Each torpedo weighed in at 5.5 tons, and the plan had been to fire the dummy at the cruiser Pyotr Velikiy as part of the Summer-X exercise.

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But as we know, the torpedo never left number four launch tube, which was set on the starboard bow of the Kursk. Instead, the projectile exploded before it left the submarine. And as we’ve heard, the blast and ensuing fire would have killed the seven men in the forward compartment that housed the torpedo room.

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For its part, that initial blast and the fire was later estimated to have reached a temperature of 4,890 °F. It then swept through a ventilation opening into the second and possibly up to the fourth of the nine compartments into which the submarine was divided. The 36 men stationed in the command post in the second compartment probably perished from the effects of this first explosion. Then, two minutes later, between five and seven Type 65 torpedoes in the bow of the Kursk detonated.

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To start with, Kursk was sailing at periscope level, but the force of the second set of torpedo blasts ripped a 22-square-foot gash in the submarine’s hull. Consequently, the vessel’s forward four compartments began to fill with water, with the sea now pouring in at a rate of nearly 25,000 gallons per second.

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The inevitable result of this deluge of water was the sinking of the Kursk, which came to rest bow-first on the seabed at a depth of 354 feet. The bow actually plunged some 70 feet into the seabed, which was composed of clay. And at this point no one except the few survivors aboard the submarine – of whom we’ll hear more shortly – knew what had happened.

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The first indication that catastrophe had struck the Kursk came when another Russian submarine detected an underwater explosion. The sub’s captain thought this had come as part of the exercise, however, and ignored it. And although the Pyotr Velikiy – the ship the Kursk was meant to target – also noticed explosions, fleet command apparently took no action about the Velikiy’s report.

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The alarm may perhaps have been raised at 1:30 p.m. – the time by which Kursk was meant to have fired two dummy torpedoes at the Velikiy. At this point, nothing had been heard from the submarine for two hours. But Admiral Vyacheslav Alekseyevich Popov, the fleet commander, was so used to communication equipment failures that he saw no reason for alarm.

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Nevertheless, Popov, who was aboard the Velikiy, decided to send out a helicopter to search for the Kursk. But it found nothing, since as we know the submarine was at the bottom of the sea. It seems that Popov then became concerned, given that he subsequently ordered the Northern Fleet’s search and rescue commander, Captain Alexander Teslenko, to stand by.

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Finally, at 6:30 p.m. – so seven hours after the Kursk had sunk – the Russians launched a search-and-rescue operation. Planes now hunted for the missing submarine, although they ultimately drew a blank. Then at 10:30 p.m. the command declared an emergency and halted the exercise. A properly intensive search operation now started, involving up to 22 vessels.

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Yet it was not until 7:00 a.m. the following day that President Putin was told about the missing submarine. And Popov’s reaction to the events verged on the delusional, too. That day he addressed a press conference, telling the assembled journalists that Summer-X had been a great success – even though he knew that the Kursk was missing and presumed lost.

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But as early as the afternoon of the day of the disaster – and even before news had reached Moscow – the Americans were aware that the Kursk had sunk. The British, French, Norwegians and others also knew what had happened. Various countries offered practical assistance to the Russians, then, in finding the submarine and rescuing any possible survivors.

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The Russians complacently refused the offers of help, however. And Putin continued a holiday at his Black Sea villa, with Russian TV showing him enjoying a barbecue there. Then, finally, the Kursk was located on Sunday morning, although rescue attempts were chaotic and hampered by malfunctioning equipment and bad weather.

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Incredibly, the Russian government’s first official statement on the Monday about the tragedy claimed that the Kursk had merely experienced some slight technical problems. Furthermore, the submarine was said to be lying safely on the seabed. And, perhaps most astonishingly of all, the statement even asserted that the crew were all alive and well and in contact with the surface. But, of course, sadly none of this was true.

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And now the Russian authorities began to fabricate causes for the incident. One claim was that the Kursk had collided with an American or British submarine that had been spying on the Russian naval exercise. Alternatively, deputy prime minister Ilya Klebanov argued that the submarine had possibly hit an old mine from the Second World War. The beauty of both of those explanations was that they would absolve senior Russian naval personnel from any blame.

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Eventually, five days after the Kursk had gone down, Putin deigned to accept the international help that was so clearly needed. Both Norway and Britain therefore sent divers and submersible rescue vehicles to the scene. And when the team cut holes in the Kursk’s hull, they witnessed only devastation. Nine days after the accident, it was thus confirmed that there had been no survivors.

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Russian naval officials had originally claimed that all of the sailors aboard the Kursk had perished by the time that the submarine had landed on the seabed. It later emerged, though, that this was yet another untruth. Incredibly, 23 men had survived the explosions and taken refuge in the submarine’s ninth compartment – the one at the stern of the vessel.

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The discovery of two notes written by Captain-Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov also proved that a number of the men had survived the explosions. The first note said, “It’s 1:15 p.m. [one hour and 45 minutes after the Kursk sank]. All personnel from section six, seven, and eight have moved to section nine, there are 23 people here… We won’t last more than a day.” A second and final note penned by Kolesnikov was timed at 3:15 p.m. – so nearly four hours after the explosions.

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This evidence of survivors of course raised the possibility that prompt action by the Russian Navy may possibly have saved some lives. And in fact, some other messages left by the surviving 23 men indicated that at least some were still alive over six hours after the submarine went down. One senior Russian navy man, Vice Admiral Vladislav Ilyin, even estimated that survivors could have lived as long as three days after the initial explosion.

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In any case, what was abundantly clear was that all of the 118 men who had been aboard the Kursk were dead. The submarine was salvaged by a Dutch consortium in 2001, although the bow section was left on the seabed where it was destroyed with explosives. All but three of the submariners’ bodies were also recovered and then buried in Russia.

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Meanwhile, the official Russian inquiry found that a faulty torpedo had caused the accident – and talk of a collision was dropped. The Kursk’s entire crew was awarded the Order of Courage, while commander Captain Gennady Lyachin was named a Hero of the Russian Federation. Memorials to the dead were erected in various cities, including Moscow, Kursk and Severodvinsk – where the submarine had built. And, of course, President Putin’s political career would survive the catastrophe, too.

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