Right off the bat, rumors began spreading that the K-19 might be cursed because there were several civilian deaths during its construction. Then to add insult to injury, when a champagne bottle was used to christen the new boat, the bottle didn’t break; needless to say, this didn’t help squelch any rumors about the submarine being cursed. After it went to sea, the problems continued as they had multiple breakdowns and accidents, several of which threatened to sink the submarine. Every day something was going wrong and crew morale kept getting worse.
On the K-19’s initial voyage on 4 July 1961, they suffered a complete loss of coolant to its nuclear reactor which meant the reactor would heat up and explode like a massive bomb. Not to be unexpected based on how many things had gone wrong, the captain found out their radio antenna wasn’t working so he couldn’t let their headquarters know they were in trouble.
The series of serious accidents that were occurring inspired crew members to nickname the submarine "Hiroshima," because if the submarine blew up, it would be as massive as one of the bombs we dropped on Japan.
When they began working on the coolant emergency, they found that the backup system to keep the reactor cool was never installed; something the crew didn’t know about until it began massively overheating. One of many items never installed because Russia’s leaders wanted the nuclear submarine on the water as soon as possible. If the U.S. beat them to the punch and launched the first nuclear test missile, they would’ve taken a significant public relation hit. They believed they were the supreme power in the world, and they didn’t want anything to take away from their projected image.
There was only one option to prevent the nuclear reactor from heating up to the point of exploding, and that was to have various members of the crew go into the reactor one at a time, for no longer than ten minutes, to rig an alternate cooling system where they would run water from the crew’s water supply and divert it into the cooling pipes for the reactor. Each person going in knew he’d never survive; they were doing it for their motherland and their fellow crew members.
While dealing with this dire situation, something unusual happened and that is a U.S. ship saw the Soviet submarine sitting dead in the water. They contacted the K-19 on an emergency radio channel and offered assistance, but the captain of the Russian submarine refused knowing that Russian leaders would never allow this to occur. He knew he’d be executed if he abandoned the submarine especially since it was one of the most technologically advanced submarines ever built and failure to protect it from enemies would be grounds for execution.
At first the repairs to the reactor were working and the reactor’s temperature went down, but not long afterwards, one of the coolant pipes in the reactor sprung a huge leak and the reactor’s temperature began rising again which eventually led to some radiation escaping into other areas of the submarine. All crew members were exposed to radiation and no one knew for sure how much radiation was too much and whether they only had hours or days left to live.
At this point the captain made the hard decision of sacrificing the submarine and crew realizing that it appeared that whatever they did, they’d end up dying anyway whether it was a huge explosion or more radiation exposure. What he didn’t know at the time, is that a young officer made his way into the nuclear reactor room without anyone knowing and was able to fix the problem. When the temperature gauge began going down, word got out as to the heroics of the young officer. Unfortunately, he was exposed too long to the nuclear reactor and died of radiation poisoning.
With the reactor issue resolved, the next problem was that the longer they stayed on their sub, the more likely it was that they all would die from radiation exposure. While going through a scenario of what he’d need to get done to destroy the sub and let the crew know what he was doing, a message arrived from another Russian submarine that they were approaching the K-19’s location and that they’d tow them back to Russia. Everyone began cheering.
What many people didn’t know until later, is that the captain of the K-19 was planning on contacting the U.S. ship to have his crew rescued and once they were all on board the ship, he planned on taking the submarine down and destroying himself and the boat. The radio message from the other submarine arrived just in time.
When the crew arrived in Russia, they were told they couldn’t say anything about their mission and if they did, they’d be charged with treason and executed. Russia didn’t want any negative publicity out about the horrific performance of their new nuclear submarine.
Over 20 sailors died from radiation poisoning when they arrived back home. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when the submarine was decommissioned, that the crew could finally share some of their experiences. The captain and surviving crew members were finally able to construct a memorial for their fellow crewmates who had died.
Twelve years later, the story of what happened made its way to the big screen through a movie called - K19: The Widowmaker. The movie stars both Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.