The Russian fleet was heading out to a location on the Bering Sea where they could perform exercises which included launching torpedoes and non-weaponized missiles. It had been ten years since they performed such an exercise as the Soviet Union was in terrible economic shape because of the Cold War. Truly, no one but President Reagan could've pulled this off. They scrapped their ships and submarines for metal and were down to about 30% their original strength. At the time of this tragedy, Boris Yeltsin had been president for four months and his goal was to turn things around and get Soviet pride back.
When their navy arrived at the training location, a huge explosion occurred in the Kursk’s torpedo room. A later investigation showed the torpedoes were defective and could easily explode due to overheating. The explosion was so loud that it pegged a 4.2 on the Richter Scale and was heard by a sonar in Alaska. Pretty much all major countries knew that Russia had just lost a ship or a submarine with a huge arsenal so they went to work on finding out which one. Figuring out if a nuclear power plant or nuclear weapons were involved was critical to many countries especially those in NATO.
After the explosion, Russia went into a search mode. They dropped a small submersible in the water that had a camera and eventually they found the wreckage around 350 feet down. It was a horrific site as almost all the submarine had been blown apart except for the back part of the sub.
They didn’t think anyone could've possibly survived but following protocol, they had a few ships stay over the area where the submarine went down and listen for sounds. When a submarine went down, the crew knew they were supposed to use what they could, to bang on the walls of the submarine at the top of every hour. The men on the ships above were shocked when they heard the banging. They didn’t know how many sailors had survived the explosion, but they knew that at least one had and it caused a great deal of excitement. President Yeltsin was immediately notified and was told that they had it under control.
At this point, they sent for a Soviet rescue ship that was in port. It had a small submarine that could attach itself to the sub’s escape hatch and allow the sailors to leave their vessel and climb on board the rescue sub. The Soviet Union had three of these rescue ships at one point, but they began running out of money and sold two of them. The surprising thing is that they sold one of them to a U.S. company who used it to take customers down to see the Titanic. These people paid a minimum of $25,000 for the adventure. At first the ticket prices were around $60,000.
When Russia attempted to dock the rescue vessel to the Kursk, it didn’t work. They tried several times, but it was running out of battery power, so they had to resurface. They asked to swap out batteries then found there wasn’t a back-up. It was sold along with the rescue ship and sub to the businessman taking people to see the Titanic. Without a backup battery, they had to wait 12 hours before their current battery could be recharged. Frustration was mounting as they knew they were running out of time because at the very least, oxygen would diminish.
They spent around four days going back and forth to the sub to try and rescue the men, but each time they couldn’t get the connection they needed and would have to resurface and then wait another 12 hours for the battery to recharge. At this point even President Yeltsin was getting upset with his navy. It was later determined that the rubber seal on the rescue vessel was faulty. It hadn’t been inspected in years, so no one caught the problem.
Russia had several offers to help rescue their sailors, even from the U.S., but they refused their help. One of Russia’s admirals happened to have a friend who was the Commodore of the Royal Navy and although he was risking his career to ask for help, he did. Britain immediately sent their rescue ship, which was much better equipped for a rescue, but when they arrived at the scene, they were told to stay away from the Kursk. The Commodore had personally joined the rescue attempt and he was extremely upset that they had to just sit back and watch these sailors die.
Pretty much everyone in Russia’s navy were livid that their sailors weren’t being rescued. Families of the crew members were demanding answers especially since they began hearing that other countries were willing to help.
While all of this was happening, the Communist Party began making various claims such as their rescue capabilities were far greater than other countries, so they didn’t need any help, which wasn’t the only lie they told. They said that it was just an accident and that the sub had run into another ship. This was a blatant and ridiculous lie because pretty much the whole world at this point, knew there was a massive explosion. I remember hearing about it on the news.
Russia didn’t want to admit that either their weapons malfunctioned, or their nuclear reactor did because it would make them appear weak. They knew that if they allowed another country to help, such as Britain, that they’d see the wreckage and know it wasn’t just an accidental collision and since they had put that word out that it was, it would be embarrassing to get caught in a lie.
With mounting pressure at home and around the globe, Russia finally gave in after five days and solicited help from Britain and Norway. It was too late. When they opened the escape hatch, they found 23 sailors dead. One of the sailors had a note in his pocket with the names of all the men who survived the explosion. Could you imagine finding out that one of your loved ones could’ve been saved? Many of the other men had written notes to their families and put them in their pockets hoping the water wouldn’t ruin their writings. Some of the notes did survive. One note came from a sailor whose wife was getting ready to have their second baby. They already had a son. He wrote that he wanted her to tell their children every day how much he loved them. He also told her to find love again and that she'll always be his forever.
Autopsies showed that some men drown, some ran out of oxygen, and some died in a flash explosion where an oxygen cannister had exploded. There is no doubt that if Russia would’ve accepted help, most of the men would’ve survived. It is still, to this day, one of the greatest blackeye's in Russia’s history.
The 118 sailors on the Kursk left behind their family, friends, wives, and 71 children. I hope they’ve all found peace and joy after this tragic loss.