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K-19: The History

1958-60: The Construction of K-19

K-19 at dry dock

1958: The Soviets are building their first ballistic-missile-equipped nuclear submarine, and the craft seems cursed before it even touches the water.

A fire breaks out, killing two workers. Six women suffocate from fumes while applying insulation. An electrician is crushed to death by a missile-tube cover. An engineer falls between two compartments and dies.

 K-19 Facts
K-19 schematic

Keel laid: October 17, 1958
Christened: April 8, 1959
Completed: November 12, 1960
Commissioned: April 30, 1961
Displacement: 4,030 tons surfaced, 5,000 tons submerged
Length: 114.1 m (374 ft)
Beam: 9.2 m (30 ft)
Draft: 7.1 m (23 ft)
Max. operating depth: 250 m (820 ft)
Max. depth: 300 m (984 ft)
Top speed: 15 knots surfaced (17 mph/28 kph), 26 knots submerged (30 mph/48 kph)
  • 3 ballistic nuclear missiles, each with ranges of 650 km (400 mi) and a 1.4-megaton warhead
  • 4 533-mm (21-in) torpedo tubes forward
  • 2 406-mm (16-in) torpedo tubes forward
  • 2 406-mm (16-in) torpedo tubes aft
  • 2 70-megawatt thermal VM-A reactors
  • 2 geared turbines driving two shafts, producing 39,200 shaft horsepower
Range: 35,700 mi at 26 knots, 32,200 mi at 24 knots (80 percent power)
Max. mission length: 50 days (due to food constraints)

 Rushed Development
Production of K-19

Movie still of K-19 replica from K-19: The Widowmaker
Photograph courtesy Paramount Pictures and IMF
Soviet leaders, determined to catch up and build a nuclear sub fleet to rival that of the U.S., begin rushing subs through production and testing, to the dismay of naval officers.

The result, according to Capt. Nikolai Zateyev of K-19, is a fleet of submarines, his own included, that are not fit for combat.

K-19: cursed?

Movie still of K-19 replica from K-19: The Widowmaker
Photograph courtesy Paramount Pictures and IMF
April 8, 1959: K-19, its hull completed, is ready for its christening. Breaking with tradition, a man, instead of a woman, is chosen to smash the ceremonial bottle of champagne across the back of the sub as it is being launched.

Instead of shattering, the bottle bounces off and lands intact. The superstitious in attendance are convinced this is a bad omen.

 Terrifying Tests
Tests at sea

July to November 1960: K-19’s first sea trials are plagued by breakdowns and malfunctions.

While the sub is at its maximum operating depth of 300 meters (about 985 feet), Captain Zateyev receives a frantic report: Flooding in the reactor compartment! The captain orders the main ballast tanks blown, and the submarine erupts from the depths lying on its port side.

The cause of the leak? Failure of the workmen to replace a gasket. Such shoddy workmanship would plague K-19 wherever it went.

Next: June 1961—Into the First Mission >>