Authors: Clyde Burleson
The team of scientists and technicians hurriedly duplicated the recordings of their findings. They would be relayed to the National Maritime Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland, as quickly as possible. Dubs were not as good as original tracks but would suffice to get an investigation started.
An original recording of the event could also come from either of the two U.S. submarines, the British sub working the area, or the Norwegian
All would have detailed records of the explosions and sinking. The
was scheduled to stop in Norway. From there, tapes and disks would be flown back to the States.
Aboard the Kursk
Dmitry had been writing. He might not have wanted to think “last thoughts,” but it would have been difficult not to do so.
Putting words on paper probably caused him to recall the foreboding he’d had about this cruise. He hadn’t wanted to worry Olechka with his premonitions of disaster. It was difficult enough for her to remain behind while he sailed in harm’s way.
They had decided he should leave the submarines. A position in science or engineering at one of the St. Petersburg Navy installations would be an ideal new assignment. It was not an easy decision. As a married man, he had responsibilities, as a submariner, obligations.
Before she had opened his emotional side, leaving the submarines would have been unthinkable, the loss in his life too great. Now she had filled that void.
On the day he departed St. Petersburg for this duty, he had left her a set of his identity tags, a crucifix, and a poem. One line vowed his love, declaring he could silently drown in her eyes.
By this point, Dmitry’s trained and disciplined mind had accepted the truth. The odds on their making it were now very low.
That reality must have angered him. They weren’t down that deep. And the explosions had to have been noted. So help should be on the way. Where were they?
Dmitry’s life had been spared during the original blast of explosions and flames. And for what? The facts were there to face. If the
had been less badly savaged, he and the rest might have had a chance. The damage was there, though, so it was only a matter of hours. And that understanding may have brought him peace.
By this point, Dmitry’s head was aching, his mouth dry, and the contaminated air must have burned in his lungs. His friend, Rashid, had been writing as well. “We feel bad . . . we’re weakened by the effects of carbon monoxide from the fire . . .” Dmitry would have concurred. The devastating flames that had flared through every portion of the submarine consumed precious oxygen at a horrendous rate. It had left an air poisoned with carbon monoxide.
The survivors could now feel the effects of increasing air pressure in their ears. That condition had been explained clearly during training. Building air pressure indicated seawater was pouring into the boat. As the water entered, under hundreds of pounds of pressure from the depths, great bubbles of air were forced upward until trapped against the steel hull. Then, slowly but inexorably, breathable gas was being squeezed tighter and tighter by the rising waters, raising the pressure.
Rashid had written, “Pressure is increasing in the compartment . . . if we head for the surface, we won’t survive the compression. We won’t last for more than a day.
Their living space was damp and they could see their breath as they exhaled stale air. The situation had worsened by the hour and now most of them knew they would not be able to remain alive long enough for the Deep Sea Rescue Vehicles to be brought to the scene. The only way out was through the double-hatch escape chute—which was a form of suicide.
Where were their rescuers? Why hadn’t they come?
12 August 2000—Barents Sea
EADERS OF THE
were confronted with a series of disconcerting facts.
First, there had been an enormous undersea explosion. Second, the blast had originated in a sector assigned to the
for patrol. Third, at least one officer on board the
Peter the Great
, and probably a great many more, was aware that a missile had been fired and that it struck the sea, causing an unusually dramatic eruption of water. Fourth, only a large attack submarine carried sufficient weaponry to produce such a hellacious submerged blast. Fifth, Captain Lyachin had called for permission to release a faulty torpedo. That transmission, according to the media, was picked up by the USNS
So there can be little doubt the call was made and that ranking officers on board the
Peter the Great
Peter the Great
, a sophisticated heavy nuclear missile cruiser, had first-class submarine-detection abilities. It was operating in a full combat mode with all of its electronic gear searching for the
. So it is likely the
, along with other submarines in the area, was being tracked. If so, the explosions would have knocked the
“off the scope.”
This information, taken as a whole, pointed to one strong conclusion. The flag rank officers immediately knew the
was down and probably disabled.
Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, Northern Fleet commander, certainly faced a difficult reality. During his fleet’s much heralded sea games, and in the midst of an important governmental military funding battle, the pride of the Russian Navy had been damaged and possibly even lost. This situation confronted the admiral with several interrelated hard alternatives.
As an old submariner, he would have had instant concern for those on board the
. And he would have known that survivors were trained to hold out as long as possible for help to arrive. In the U.S. Navy, sailors are aware they might have to sustain themselves for up to a week. Russian submariners must have about the same time horizon. While a week may seem an inordinate period, especially because many preparations are already in place and set for immediate use, massing for a deep-water rescue mission is an extremely complex operation. Every precaution must be taken to keep from endangering the lives of the rescuers as well as the trapped personnel.
So the admiral’s first decision concerned the unleashing of a full-fledged search-and-rescue mission. While any delay might result in the unnecessary loss of lives, ordering immediate action also presented problems.
Every rescue effort is an expensive undertaking. To initiate such an action without being certain about conditions on board the
could be wasteful. Standard operating procedures also supported a delay. The
had a strict reporting schedule. If the submarine did not contact Fleet HQ at the specified time, still some hours away, then a problem had to be assumed. There also might be the possibility of receiving an SOS from the sub. She was equipped with an automatic emergency deployment buoy with a built-in identifier. A signal for help would immediately trigger a rescue mission.
The Navy could wait, a short while, for the
to call at her scheduled reporting time or send an SOS. The submarine might be only slightly damaged. Or, a weak possibility, she might simply be maintaining radio silence.
Moreover, security presented an obstacle to dispatching an immediate rescue effort. As soon as the first Russian ship began working a search pattern, U.S. eyes and NATO ears would be alerted. Both the Russian press and foreign observers would suspect the Northern Fleet had an emergency.
Time was also needed for another purpose. Flag rank officers are obligated to keep political realities in mind before acting. Key military and governmental figures had to be notified and brought into the situation. This was Russia, and it was imperative officials agree on a course of action. If the
was down, the need to blame someone would be intense. If lives were lost as well, finding fault would become a passion. A disaster of this magnitude could shake the military and political foundations of the nation.
In his role as one of the highest ranking officers in the Russian Navy, Admiral Popov was dealing with many serious considerations. At the same time, he had to remember that any delay in a rescue effort would result in a massive morale problem with submariners throughout his command. Other factors undoubtedly also influenced the final decision. In spite of all that was known and suspected, no rescue effort was initiated at that point in the drama.
Admiral Popov’s departure from the
Peter the Great
shortly after the explosion was in all probability to reach a secure communications link with the commander in chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov. Popov’s report was one that needed to be made without any chance of eavesdroppers. And there were plenty of potential listeners, ranging from NATO, the U.S., the news media, and intelligence units of other Russian military services.
Until an official position could be established, it was imperative that no one outside a select few have even an inkling anything was wrong. The potential for damaging the Navy, personal careers, and worldwide Russian prestige was horrendous.
Even senior naval officers were not immune from the need to avoid admission of error. The slightest comment that could be taken as accepting the smallest responsibility for an accident could turn the whole disaster into that person’s fault.
And in today’s Russia, there is a new wild card. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the news media, once so tightly caged, is now loose in the streets. A story with the dramatic potential of a Navy miscue and an undersea rescue would cause the newshounds to salivate. One leak of a story this spectacular, and there would be no stopping them.
All this made one point clear. Eventually, someone, something, or some organization was going to be held accountable for this tragedy. To avoid being blamed, a great many officials were going to have to avoid the truth through the use of half-truths or outright lies.
August 12—1330 Hours—On Board the Peter the Great
Activities relating to the sea maneuvers continued. To halt the exercise would have focused instant attention on the situation—and produced unanswerable questions.
Peter the Great
and her protective convoy proceeded to operate as a unit, turning this way and that to maintain their evasionary tactics. As the day progressed, with no practice torpedoes fired at them from the
, the ship’s crew had to wonder why they were not attacked. Among those who knew or suspected the reason, concern for the lost sub grew.
’s schedule called for her to make a report to Northern Fleet HQ not later than 1800 hours. Until then, she was supposed to have remained in combat hunt-and-kill training conditions.
Time passed slowly. As hour after hour slogged by, the air of anticipation and worry had intensified. While only a few knew or had reason to suspect the worst, they must have wordlessly communicated their concerns. Even among those who possessed all the facts, there was some hope. Maybe the
was stuck on the bottom with propulsion troubles. Perhaps she was playing a trick on them by remaining silent. Or possibly she’d been crippled and had limped secretly back to home port. That would make sense. The Navy would maintain radio silence to keep news of damage to the submarine quiet. No sense revealing problems to the Americans or NATO.
Rumors are a staple form of entertainment in every nation’s military. And, as rumors do, they began to multiply. Vague misgivings grew into plausible theories and even the thinnest bit of information was transformed to fit one or another scenario.
As the 1800-hour deadline for the
to report approached, plans were being laid in high places.
Under the rule of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, handling this situation would have been a relatively simple issue. In many previous submarine disasters the loss was simply not mentioned outside a need-to-know group. Under the old regime, no information was released to the news media. Any stories that leaked out were flatly denied. Families were told nothing—or, at best, given notice that a loved one had been lost in action. And that report, in many instances, did not come until years after the event. There were no investigations, no public hearings, nothing. Justification for this attitude stemmed from the concept that every citizen was in essence a ward of the state. Therefore every citizen owed allegiance and even life to the state.
In Russia today, actions are directed by a somewhat different, more humane viewpoint. Freedom and democratic rule by law were concepts that had taken root. Those principles also provided the basis for personal independence and opportunity.
Old ways and attitudes are often difficult to forget, however, especially when they are more expedient, convenient, or serve a desired end. It appears that to some degree, a clash between the old and the new caused many of the difficulties related to the
For example, the Northern Fleet had to obey regulations. They might bend procedures a bit and cut a corner or two, but Navy regs had to be followed. There were severe consequences for deviating too much from the book. And the book demanded action in a set manner within a specified period of time. As a result, officials had to make big decisions within an initial time window that was very tight.
Second, naval command had to launch a concerted effort to deal with the media. What was to be released, and when, was crucial to keeping the situation from escalating into a circus. Coordination of news services was vital.
Then there was always the matter of fault finding. If the tragedy could be blamed on some foreign intervention, then the leaders involved would be safe. This ploy, perfected by the military and government of the Soviet Union, traded on creating a paranoia based on a threat of aggression from the West. It had worked famously in the past. There was no reason to abandon its use now.