Saturday marks the 17-year anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster. The sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine etched a monolithic capstone to Russian nuclear naval ineptitude that had been trickling to the surface since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Oscar Class Kursk ballistic missile submarine – one of the largest attack subs ever built – sank while participating part in broadest naval exercises since Soviet times in the Barents Sea.
The K-141 Antey class nuclear-powered submarine was assembled in 1992 at the Sevmash shipyard in the Russian northwestern city of Severodvinsk. The submarine, designed by Pavel Pustyntsev and Igor Baranov, was named Kursk on April 6, 1993, launched in May 1994, and commissioned on December 30 of the same year.
On March 1, 1995, the cruise missile submarine entered into service with the Northern Fleet and joined the 7th Division of the 1st Nuclear Submarine Flotilla, based at the Northwestern Zapadnaya Litsa naval base. Between 1995 and 2000, the submarine served Russia’s Northern Fleet.
On August 12, 2000, during an exercise in the Barents Sea under the command of Capt. 1st Rank Gennady Lyachin, the submarine failed to establish communication at the designated time while it was carrying out an exercise in torpedoing a flotilla of combat ships in the Northern Fleet’s naval testing area.
The following day, a group of ships led by Northern Fleet commander Adm. Vyacheslav Popov started the search for the submarine. The Kursk was discovered on the sea floor at a depth of 108 meters (354 feet) early in the morning of August 13. Then-Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev reported the incident to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On August 14, the commanders of the Russian Navy made their first public statement, reporting that the submarine had sunk. The Navy’s statement assured the public that the navy was maintaining radio communication with the submarine.
Shortly after, however, spokesmen for the navy said they only communicated through Morse code, that the crew was not in danger, and that Kolokol rescue apparatus was supplying fuel and oxygen to the submarine. However, soon after that, Russian Navy commander Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov announced that there was little hope of rescuing the Kursk’s crew.
On August 15, the Russian Navy’s headquarters officially declared the start of the rescue operation to evacuate the crew. Northern Fleet rescue vessels, including the battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy and about 20 ships and rescue vessels, arrived at the site. However, a storm forced the rescue operation to be postponed.
A spokesman for the Northern Fleet told journalists that day that the exchange of messages in Morse code proved that the crew members were alive, but he said it was unclear whether anyone among the 103 people aboard the submarine was injured. The number of people on board was later confirmed to be 118.
On August 16, in the midst of a two-point sea swell, a Priz deep-water rescue device was deployed from the Rudnitsky rescue vessel. Throughout the night, several attempts were made to enter the submarine, all were unsuccessful.
On August 17, the Norwegian Seaway Eagle ship, carrying deep-sea divers, and the transport vessel Normand Pioneer carrying British experts and equipment, were dispatched to the site of the disaster. In the afternoon of August 19, the Normand Pioneer arrived at the site, beginning the international stage of the rescue operation.
In the afternoon of August 19, the Normand Pioneer arrived at the site, beginning the international stage of the rescue operation.
On August 20, Norwegian divers inspected the submarine in an attempt to determine the damage and the presence of air cushions in the stern compartments of the submarine. They managed to unlock an escape hatch but could not get inside the submarine. To open the hatch, special tools had to be constructed.
On the morning of August 21, the Norwegian divers managed to open the upper escape hatch in the ninth compartment, but the escape lock was empty. The divers opened the internal hatch to the submarine’s ninth compartment, which appeared to be filled with water. A video camera was inserted into the submarine to try to assess the condition of the seventh and eighth compartments of the submarine. The camera captured a body.
At 5 p.m. on August 21, Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief-of-staff of the Northern Fleet, officially confirmed the deaths of the K-141 Kursk submarine crewmembers.
On August 22, the Russian president issued an executive order declaring August 23 a day of mourning.
On the 40th day after the Kursk disaster, a commemorative stone of mourning was laid in a memorial on the island of Yagry in the city of Severodvinsk.
An operation to recover the bodies of the dead sailors began on October 25 and finished on November 7, 2000. The raising of the submarine began on October 7, 2001, and on October 10, it was towed to the Russian Navy’s Roslyakovo shipyard. One hundred and fifteen bodies out of the 118 on board were recovered and identified by early 2001.
On July 26, 2002, Russia’s prosecutor general announced that an explosion with an epicenter inside the fourth torpedo launcher, and subsequent explosions of the combat torpedo sections in the submarine’s first compartment caused the Kursk disaster. Ustinov also reported that his office had closed the criminal case into the Kursk disaster due to the lack of a crime. Those responsible for holding the naval exercise in the Barents Sea, the manufacturing, exploitation, and installment of the torpedo that caused the disaster, were not guilty, according to him.
In a fateful moment that would be remembered and criticized for years to come, Putin told CNN’s Larry King: “It sank” — and appeared to smirk — when answering a question about what had happened to the submarine during an interview on the television channel a month after the tragedy.
This laconic answer and the president’s demeanor were slammed as being cynical, indifferent and inappropriate for years to come, and further enraged those who already believed the government could have saved some of the sailors.