Authors: Clyde Burleson
By turning slightly, Lyachin would have been facing in the direction of the small apartment where he and Irina lived. Navy life was hard on women. Their men could be gone for months at a time. She was a good wife, though, and another source of his pride.
The premission inspection had gone well. This in spite of noncompliance with the regulation that required every sub returning from a mission to be stripped of its armament. Removal allowed for better inspection of the individual weapons and a more effective check of the onboard facilities for storing them. It also prevented an accidental explosion while docked that might damage port facilities or nearby vessels.
The top Navy officers were in complete agreement with the precaution. But what could they do? The cranes were totally worn-out and useless. Without machinery, unloading the missiles and torpedoes was impossible. Their only recourse was to require frequent onboard checks and rechecks. The issue again was money.
In the sail of the
, paint on the bulkheads had been scraped or worn away in places to reveal the dried-blood-colored antirust primer coating. There was not even enough cash to buy paint to maintain appearances.
Later that evening, in compliance with regulations, Lyachin held a final review of their assignment. It was challenging but his crew could do it.
In addition to five captains from 7th Submarine Division Headquarters along as observers, he had also been ordered to accommodate two representatives from Dagdizel, the military arms factory in Dagestan. Both were torpedo design experts and could help with safety measures—unless they were along for another reason. The Navy tended to carry the secrecy of its projects to extremes. In any case, all elements seemed ready and he expected a good cruise.
Dmitry Staroseltsev, a 19-year-old seaman from the city of Kursk, had found a new world aboard
. He’d completed his studies at the Railway College and faced mandatory military service. His friends had not been surprised when he turned down a slot in the elite Kremlin Guard for submarine duty. Those who knew him were aware of his love for machinery and his dream of serving in the fleet.
Getting assigned to the
had not been easy. There had been three applicants for every slot on the boat allotted to conscripts. Inducted in November and shipped off to camp after a blessing from the Bishop of Kursk himself, he survived eight hard months of training. For Dima, as his buddies called him, the effort had been worth it. He’d thrived in the Navy and gained 17 pounds.
His mom, Valentina, a nurse, had feared her gentle son would not do well in military life. His letters had convinced her otherwise.
“Thank God I’m finally here,” he wrote.
His reference to God came easily. He had often accompanied his mother and sister, Inna, to the small, bright yellow church near his home. They lived in a one-story brick house on a tree-lined dead-end street and he had fond memories of the place—especially his mother’s cooking.
“Everyone, including officers, called one another by their first names and the officers were almost fathers,” one letter he’d written while on a cruise said. “We have four meals a day here, just like home. I’m really happy. We will resurface in the middle of August. See you soon.”
Life on board the
had settled into a routine for Dima. Stationed in the fourth compartment that contained crew quarters and dining facilities, he was a bilge seaman and his duties were not arduous. So there was time to meet with the six other young men from Kursk and share memories of home.
Dima’s best friend, Aleksey Nekrasov, known as “Lyosha,” a turbine operator in the seventh compartment, was also pleased with his assignment. His section was under the command of Captain-Lieutenant Dmitry Kolesnikov. Their job was to operate and maintain the mighty twin OK-9 turbines that could be harnessed to produce enough electricity to fill the needs of a small city.
All told, a duty tour on board the
was satisfying. The men were part of an elite group, buoyed by a powerful esprit de corps that set them apart. And they were ready to prove exactly how good they really were during the fleet maneuvers.
Aboard the Kursk
Total darkness, like that in the deepest cave, had embraced the survivors. The black would have been almost palpable, like a paralyzing blanket that curdled spirits and confused their brains.
The deck had acquired a horrible new and much sharper slant. How long since the explosions? Seconds? Minutes? The only sound was the unmistakable whoosh of compressed air forcing water out of the ballast tanks. That one roaring noise, combined with the impossible deck angle, told them the
Then suddenly, as if the Lord had decreed it, there was light.
Those still alive had to have been momentarily blinded by the brightness. Elation over returned vision, however, was short-lived. A loud, stomach-wrenching jolt caused items that had been thrown down once to be tossed again in every direction. The mighty submarine shook, her steel plates and stanchions making a forlorn howl. Then all was silent, except for dripping water.
Those on board knew she’d slammed nose first into the seabed. They were living the terror of every submariner. The
, their boat, a pride to all, was down.
It must have taken a few moments for the survivors inside the sunken vessel to gather their senses. The devastation around them was disorienting. Then, as the realization of their plight took hold, the answer to one question held their chances for survival.
How deep were they?
Each of them had passed the mandatory submariner test of ascending from an emergency escape hatch to the surface, more than 100 feet above, without any type of breathing apparatus. And the officers on board knew special care had been taken while maneuvering the giant boat because of shallow water in the exercise area.
Determining how deep the submarine rested would reveal their best course of action. But estimating the depth was difficult. The lights could not have been out long before the emergency system cut on. From the instant the deck slanted away and the main electrics had failed, no more than a minute could have passed. It must have seemed infinitely longer, but the battery-powered units would have activated sooner than that.
The boat had twisted and skidded through the water. They couldn’t have been going very fast or she’d have busted in the middle—maybe ten or so knots initially, slowly accelerating. And they’d started from a depth of about 90 feet. So, possibly they were down as little as 300 feet. Even with the tail of the boat sticking upward, it was too deep for an unaided escape.
After impact, metal plates forming the smashed hull would have emitted a terrible creaking—an unbearable noise of low groans and high-pitched pings that hurt the ears. Would the pressure hull hold? There was no way to tell. As the boat’s shape melded to the sea bottom, the weird shrieks would have diminished.
Dmitry must have forced himself to think. The discipline drilled into him would have dictated his actions. His first task was to report to the Command Center. There was no response over the boat’s intercom. The other constantly manned station was the sick bay in the fourth compartment. Nothing there, as well. Either the communications system was busted or . . . It was better not to dwell on the “or” part.
The crew of a submarine is a tight group and, at sea, they live in restricted space. So Dmitry knew the men assigned to each of the compartments in the rear of the boat. His group in Compartment 7 totaled eight, plus himself. The sixth compartment was staffed by five, including his buddy, Rashid Ariapov. Compartment 8 contained seven, and the end of the boat, the ninth compartment, had a crew of three. That made 24. Everyone would have been at his duty station, both because of the simulated combat torpedo attack run and in response to the first emergency alarm that had slammed the watertight doors.
They had no way to judge how seriously their boat was damaged. So some exploration was necessary. At the same time, the remaining crew could be located and sent to muster in the ninth compartment, near the escape hatch. And they could care for any injured men as well.
The inspection of the boat must have been mentally devastating. The fifth compartment watertight door refused to open. That fact, combined with the force of the two separate explosions, clearly indicated the entire front half of the submarine was flooded. From this came the realization they were probably the only ones still alive.
When all were assembled, there was a head count. Including Dmitry, 23 had survived. What had happened to the missing person? There was no use considering all the possibilities.
By retreating to the rear of the vessel, they had placed three more watertight doors between them and the incoming sea. That was not as comforting as it sounded, because there was the distinct possibility they might be taking water in the lower corridor. The propeller drive shaft seals may have failed, too, providing additional leaks. That understanding would have made clear how helpless their situation really was.
Dmitry had been taught trapped men face two self-destructive dangers.
First was the breakdown of the chain of command. Disorganization led to individuals acting on their own as opposed to working as a team. Among other problems, a riot over food or water might occur.
Second was the slow, irreversible withdrawal into hopelessness. If unchecked, the process might lead to insanity.
Dmitry must have dug through the rubble until he found writing materials. The edges of the paper sheets were charred but would do. He needed to make an official report.
What had caused the disaster? Recalling the events in proper time sequence was important. There had been one initial explosion. It had occurred on board or close by in the water. A fire had followed. Command had been calling for fire-suppression teams over the loudspeaker.
Then there had been the second mother of all blasts. It must have been the torpedoes stored in Compartment 1. A detonation of that intensity would have ruptured the bow area, which would explain their steep descent to the sea bottom. There was little comfort in that explanation. He could recall the roar of ballast tanks being blown. If this indestructible submarine still went under, even with negative ballast, damage was extensive.
What else had happened? No klaxon had announced problems with the nuclear reactors. They apparently had gone into emergency shutdown mode. That fail-safe seemed to have worked. But it left them without power.
Logic dictated their course of action. If they had guessed correctly, the crippled
was not deep. The explosions had to have been detected. Therefore help was on its way and a DSRV could reach them. That was logical, true, and simple. The men would believe it.
The Deep Sea Rescue Vehicles were their best hope. Two trips by even one of the smaller, older model DSRVs would be able to transport the survivors to the surface. What they must do was hold out. The Northern Fleet would come. They had to come, if Dmitry was ever going to see Olechka again.
Slowly the survivors had to have realized it was growing colder. With no electricity there would be no heating. Eventually, the sub would assume the same near freezing temperature as the water surrounding it.
Dmitry Kolesnikov knew maintaining a positive state of mind was a critical challenge. It would be easy to slip into depression. So probably he and the rest of the men sought cheerful memories. Dmitry must have remembered his 27th birthday, two days before.
He’d reported for duty on board the
. They would be 96 hours at sea. That was the good part. Time underwater was becoming more difficult to acquire.
Money had not been such a problem in his father’s time. His dad had been a 1st captain on a nuclear submarine—one of the early atomshiks. They had no equipment shortages. The Navy got the best in those days, and the nuclear sub fleet better than that.
His father, Roman, had visited the
. He had been impressed, especially with the spacious crew quarters. Accommodations had been considerably more cramped on those earlier boats.
His father had not pressured him to join the Navy. Being a submariner was a glamorous job. You were respected. Roman had told him he would never get rich on Navy pay and that it was an unhealthy, thankless life. The friends you made, though, would be just that—true friends for the rest of your life.
Dmitry had spent two days in his room, avoiding other people, thinking through what he wanted as a career. The submarines had won. For him, it was almost a religious calling. He would dedicate his life to the Navy. With that decision came a characteristic determination. He was totally committed.
When the medical section of the Navy examining board had decided he was 13 pounds overweight for his height, Dmitry responded immediately. He dieted on cucumbers and yogurt for almost a week, was reexamined, and accepted.
He’d graduated at the top of his class—which was how he’d been assigned to the Northern Fleet and earned a berth on the
Dwelling on pleasant thoughts must have been harder for the men because of the horrid metallic moans made by the sub’s bow as it settled deeper into the bottom sludge.
The lights seemed dimmer. They had pulled all the battery packs from the emergency illumination systems in the other compartments and were using as few at a time as possible. Each of them had already sampled the terrible darkness. No one wanted to contemplate what it would be like when the final lamp died.
10 August 2000Barents Sea—Northern Fleet ManeuversAboard the Kursk