Eric_W's Reviews > A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy

A Time to Die by Robert Moore
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Apr 14, 13

bookshelves: nautical-non-fiction
Read in April, 2013

The Kursk's brief life spanned a revolutionary period. She had been planned under Gorbachev, the keel had been "laid down" under Yeltsin, but when finally commissioned, the Soviet Union had self-destructed and she was commissioned into the Russian Northern Fleet, prepared for a war that seemed less and less likely. Huge -- there is a drawing of a 747 superimposed on a schematic of the Kursk that dwarfs the airplane,-- the Kursk and her sister ship were the pride of the increasingly destitute Russian navy: the captain of the Kursk took home less than $1,000 per year and often a paymaster would be left behind a cruise to stand at the bank to make sure the crew's salaries were collected before the money disappeared from the bank. In fact, one of the officers on board was suing the government and Navy for pay for the sailors. The Kursk 's final voyage was part of a very ambitious -- a word used advisedly because it was not sure that money would be available to pay for the fuel --war game intended to impress Putin who had suggested he wanted to restore the Russian military to its former glory. The plan was also to use the cover of the war games to sneak one of the Russian boomers under the summer ice of the Arctic past watching American submarines proving they could deploy a nuclear sub without the United State knowing about it. Things began to go wrong from the start. Several missile launches failed spectacularly and the pressure to send good news to the Defense Ministry was pushing crews to take risks. In the final phase of the war games four submarines were to elude discovery and fire a test torpedo at the Peter the Great a large cruiser.

I suspect most of us have some hydrogen peroxide lying around the house. Simple stuff, just water with an extra oxygen atom. But bring it into contact with copper and you have the recipe for a serious disaster as the peroxide tries to eject the extra oxygen atom creating immense heat. Once started, nothing will stop the process until all the combustible material is gone. The practice torpedo that blew up had never been used in practice and the HTP used in the propulsion system had leaked on to the casing, made of copper and brass. It exploded with immense heat and force. In the forward torpedo room of the Kursk, there were live torpedoes with real TNT in them. When they cooked off in a secondary explosion, it registered on the Richter scale as 3.5 magnitude. It blew a huge hole in the pressure hull of the sub. The blast was halted only by the nuclear vessel shielding. This prevented the controls rods from being knocked out of alignment and a potential runaway reactor. Instead of a submarine accident it might have been an ecological disaster.

The British had known of the dangers of HTP. The Sidon had a torpedo explode without warning while at the dock in 1955. Twelve men were killed and an investigation revealed the HTP (high-test peroxide) had leaked out of chamber in the torpedo on to some metal and combusted.
They never again carried HTP on a British submarine.

To make matters worse, the emergency buoy that was supposed to release and send emergency signals if any number of serious conditions arose, had been disabled while on a patrol in the Mediterranean the summer previous, because they were terrified it would deploy accidentally and alert American or British forces to the subs presence. By 1999, the fleet was suffering from neglect and lack of funds. Of seventy cranes at the home port, only twenty worked, meaning that torpedoes could only be loaded on a few of the boats. Sailors were paid only six months out of the year and some of the subs were reduced to hauling food. One commander connected his nuclear power plant to the town's electrical grid so at least some of the navy families could be warm and have light during the long winter.

By a quirk of fate, after the explosion, which blew an immense hole in the side, the sub settled to the floor of the sea in a rather even fashion. Had it sunk nose first, some 130 feet would have extended above the surface, since the depth of water where she sank was only 350 feet deep, much less than the length of the vessel. 23 sailors survived the sinking initially, but remained entombed in the stern of the sub. We have a pretty good idea of what happened to the men marooned in the rear of the sub. A twenty-eight-year-old officer, Lt. Kolesnikov, began writing a precise journal of who was there and events as long as he could. There must have had some makeshift light at the beginning and adequate oxygen for his writing is precise. There were 23 men, all doing reasonably well who could have been saved had the Russians acted with haste, understood what was happening accepted the aid of foreign experts. As the author notes, making this an international rescue should not have been embarrassing since no one nation could martial all the technology and forces needed. But the idea that Russians would let Americans or NATO forces anywhere near their premiere sub was anathema.

Russian communications failures being rather common coupled with a distinct desire not to be the bearer of bad tidings, the double explosion on a sub in the midst of the Russian fleet and during a simulated wartime exercise, went unmentioned if not unnoticed. There was no reward for being curious. Everyone else in the world was very curious as seismic registration needles around the globe measured something. They and the entire US intelligence apparatus were at complete loss to understand what had happened. Communication to the outside world was abysmal at best. The Russians, always eager to put the best foot forward made it seem like everything was great. World interest was accordingly peaked and now they had figurative floodlights on the Kursk . Problem was that Norwegian seismologists had registered the explosions on Saturday, not on Sunday as the Russians had claimed. So the world knew they were lying from the git-go. And they also uttered the word "collision." This was the worst possible scenario from a political standpoint. There had been several very embarrassing and potential deadly collisions in these waters and the new quieting technologies made them even more likely. In one instance a Russia sub surfaced right underneath and American spy sub. And the Cold War was supposed to be over! Both subs limped back to base. But it was a close thing.

Ironic, because the Russians had suffered the loss of the S-80 more than thirty years before in almost exactly the same location. It disappeared without a trace, but the Russians were determined to find it and discover what might have gone wrong as it was the first of its type. They never gave up and 8(!) years after it disappeared it was discovered and the cause of the sinking identified. During a storm, water began to slosh into the vessel through an open hatch. A sailor was ordered to shut it, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't. The reason was simple. He had been trained on a different model of submarine in which the hatch handle was screwed shut in the opposite direction. He had tried so hard to close it the threads on the screw mechanism had been completely stripped. Another irony was that precisely the characteristics that made the sub so difficult to find, i.e. its design to suppress noise and not reflect sonar signals, worked against saving the sailors trapped in section nine.


I also intend to read .
Cry from the Deep: The Sinking of the Kursk, the Submarine Disaster That Riveted the World and Put the New Russia to the Ultimate Test
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