Remembering the Kursk Submarine Sinking

New Wave Media

October 3, 2013

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On August 12 2000, K-141, a Russian Navy Oscar-II class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine, known to the world as Kursk, was lost with all hands when it sank in the Barents Sea. Kursk, was a Project 949A (known by its NATO reporting name as Oscar II). It was named after the Russian city Kursk, where the largest tank battle in military history, the Battle of Kursk, took place in 1943 during WWII.

One of the first vessels completed after the end of the Soviet Union, it was commissioned into the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet. At 154 m (505.03 ft) long and four stories high, she was the largest attack submarine ever built. The Kursk sortied on an exercise to fire dummy torpedoes at the Kirov-class battle cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy, flag ship of the Northern Fleet.

At 11:28 local time (07:28 UTC), there was an explosion while preparing to fire. The most credible report to date indicates the explosion was due to the failure of one of the Kursk's hydrogen peroxide-fueled Type 65 torpedoes. It is believed that high test peroxide (HTP), a form of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide used as propellant for the torpedo, seeped into the torpedo casing because of a leaking weld in the torpedo's fuel system. The HTP used as an oxidizer for the torpedo's engine, escaped into the torpedo casing where it catalytically decomposed on the metals and oxides present there, yielding steam and oxygen.

The resulting overpressure ruptured the kerosene fuel tank. The resulting explosion produced a blast equal to 100–250 kilograms (220–550 lb) of TNT and registered 2.2 on the Richter scale. The submarine sank in relatively shallow water, bottoming at 108 metres (354 ft) about 135 kilometres (84 mi) off Severomorsk. A second explosion, 135 seconds after the initial event, measured between 3.5 and 4.4 on the Richter scale, equivalent to 3-7 tons of TNT. One of those explosions blew large pieces of debris back through the submarine. Though rescue attempts were offered by U.S, British and Norwegian teams, Russia declined initial rescue offers. All 118 sailors and officers aboard Kursk perished. The Russian Admiralty at first thought that most of the crew died within minutes of the explosion; however, some of the sailors had time to write notes. Captain Lieutenant Dmitriy Kolesnikov, one of the survivors of the first explosion, survived in Compartment 9 at the very stern of the boat after blasts destroyed the forward spaces of the submarine. Recovery workers found notes on his body. They showed 23 sailors (out of 118 aboard) had waited in the dark with him.

Even 32 hours after the first explosion no attempt was made to acoustically (hull tapping) check for survivors when the Russian Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) Priz attempted to mate with the aft escape trunk. Eventually, the Russian Navy allowed a consortium formed by the Dutch companies Mammoet and Smit International, using the barge Giant 4 raised Kursk and recovered the dead, who were buried in Russia.

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Paschoa, Claudio
Claudio Paschoa is Marine Technology Reporter's correspondent in Brazil.
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