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Kursk: Waiting in Vain
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Kursk: Waiting in Vain

Kursk on Navy Day off Severomorsk, Russia, on July 30, 2000
Photograph from AFP/CORBIS
No one can say for sure whether any could have been saved, but at least 23 of the 118 men who died aboard the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in August 2000 were alive when it hit the seafloor. They spent hours hoping for rescue, even reportedly tapping out SOS messages on the sub’s hull.

A scribbled note found on one of the recovered bodies established 23 men were alive, though just about everything else about the catastrophe remains fuzzy.

It is possible that even the most advanced rescue efforts would not have been successful, but victims’ families and others have criticized the Russian government for not immediately asking for help from other countries with rescue efforts.

Outdated Equipment

Having apparently discarded some rescue equipment years before to save money, the Russians initially relied on diving bells similar to those in use since the 1930s. These and other attempts were hampered by high seas and damage to Kursk that made operating its escape hatch difficult. Other countries were eventually asked to help, but by then it was too late.

On August 12 listening devices had recorded two explosions in the Barents Sea, where Kursk was conducting exercises. Early on, analysts suggested a variety of explanations for these, including a misfire during a torpedo test and an impact with a World War II mine.

Another possibility was that the second “explosion” was the sub crashing into the seafloor as a result of some other problem. Russian officials also suggested that the accident may have been caused by a collision with one of the foreign vessels in the area monitoring the exercises, but the government has since denounced that theory.

Fatal Fuel?

The most likely explanation of the accident, according to Russian investigations of Kursk—most of which was raised at the end of 2001—is that the fuel in a torpedo ignited, starting a fire that caused the torpedoes to detonate.

The Russians have admitted that the torpedo used an outdated and highly unstable propellant. All such weapons have now been removed from their subs.

More information on what happened should come in late 2002, when Kursk’s mangled front portion, which included the torpedo room, will be raised.

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Kursk in 2000


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