Friday, 25 February 2011

The loss of the Kursk was because of stupidity

There is nothing stupider that refusing help when it is needed because of pride. That’s what happened when the Russian 14,000 ton submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barrent’s Sea.

The Russians named the sub after their city of Kursk. At 154 metres (505 feet) in length and four stories high, it was the largest attack submarine ever built. Many of its 118-man crew were high school students from Kursk.

On August 12th, 2000, there was an internal explosion in the forward compartments when it sank to the bottom of the Barrent's Sea in the Arctic somewhere east of the city of Murmansk. By August 16th, there were no more tapping noises heard emanating from the Kursk.

What follows are the acts of stupidity which resulted in this tragedy coming about. The Russian authorities at first refused any assistance from the Western countries and by the time they realized that that decision was a bad one, it was too late for those countries from the west that had life-saving subs to get there in time to save the men inside the Kursk. In any case, it was probably academic in any case. When an escape hatch was finally opened, the submarine was discovered to be filled with water. The men drowned rather than suffocated. I suppose in one sense; that was a blessing. Suffocation is a horrible way to die, especially when it is gradual. I know because when I was suffering from congestive heart failure last year, (fluid accumulates in the lungs) I was slowly suffocating. It is very scary to say the least.

What was the real cause of the sinking? Here is the background of the sinking.

On the morning of 12 August 2000, as part of a naval exercise, the Kursk was to fire two dummy torpedoes at the Kirov-class battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy, the flagship of the Northern Fleet. At 11:29 local time, a 65-76 ‘Kit’ torpedo was loaded into Kursk's number 4 torpedo tube. Due to a leaking weld in the torpedo's fuel system, high test peroxide, a form of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide used as an oxidizer for the torpedo's rocket engine, escaped into the torpedo casing where it catalytically decomposed on the metals and oxides present there, yielding steam and oxygen. The resulting overpressure ruptured the kerosene fuel tank, causing an enormous explosion that registered as a weak seismic signature on detectors hundreds of kilometers away.

Recovered remains of the torpedo later allowed the first explosion to be pinpointed to the middle part of the torpedo. According to maintenance records, the dummy torpedoes, manufactured in the 1990s, had never had their welds checked; such checks were considered unnecessary as the torpedoes did not carry warheads.

That may seem rather foolish now considering the fact that the damaged torpedo did far more damage than was anticipated.

The explosive reaction of 1.5 tons of concentrated hydrogen peroxide and 500 kg of kerosene blew off the external torpedo tube cover and the internal tube door. (The torpedo tube cover was later found on the seabed and its position relative to the rest of the submarine served as evidence of this version of events.) The tube door, which should have been capable of resisting such an explosion, was not properly closed; the electrical connectors between the torpedoes and the tube doors were unreliable and often required repeated re-closing of the door before a contact was established, so it is likely that at the moment of explosion the door was not fully closed. The blast entered the front compartment, undoubtedly killing all seven men there.

Hindsight is unfortunate when we get it too late. But there is an advantage to some degree when we have accidents. We learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, these mistakes with respect to the Kursk were horrendous and the learning experience came at a terrible cost of human life.

Normally the bulkhead should have arrested the blast wave, but it was penetrated by a light air conditioning channel which allowed passage of the blast wave, fire and toxic smoke into the second and perhaps third and fourth compartments thereby injuring or disorienting the 36 men in the command post located in the second compartment and preventing the initiation of an emergency blowout to resurface the submarine. Additionally, an automatic emergency buoy, designed to release itself on detection of conditions such as fire or rapid pressure changes and intended to help rescuers locate the stricken vessel, did not deploy.

This event obviously pinpointed the danger of not foreseeing potential hazards that can occur when a submarine or any other sea-going craft is built. Of course, no one could have foreseen the fact that that a bad weld in a torpedo would result in fire and toxic smoke entering a light air conditioning channel and subsequently flowing into other compartments of a sub. But the builders of subs and other sea-going vessels have to think like chess players do. They have to think far ahead before they make their next move. The architects of the sub didn’t think far enough ahead in the designing of the Kursk. As the well-known German adage goes, “Too smart too late.”

Two minutes and fifteen seconds after the initial eruption, a much larger explosion ripped through the submarine. Seismic data from stations across Northern Europe show that the explosion occurred at the same depth as the sea bed, suggesting that the submarine's collision with the sea floor, combined with rising temperatures due to the initial explosion, had caused other torpedoes to explode. The second explosion was equivalent to 2-3 tons of TNT, or about 5-7 torpedo warheads, and measured 4.2 on the Richter scale. Acoustic data from Pyotr Velikiy indicated multiple explosions of 7 torpedo warheads in rapid succession.

The second explosion ripped a 2-square-metre (22 sq ft) hole in the hull of the craft, which was designed to withstand depths of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft), and also ripped open the third and fourth compartments. Water poured into these compartments at 90,000 litres (3,200 cu ft) per second killing all those in the compartments, including five officers from 7th SSGN Division Headquarters. The fifth compartment contained the ship's two nuclear reactors, encased in 13 centimetres (5.1 in) of steel and resiliently mounted to absorb shocks in excess of 50g. The bulkheads of the fifth compartment withstood the explosion, allowing the two reactors to shut down automatically and preventing nuclear meltdown or contamination.

Obviously the designers were smart enough to think that far enough ahead to make sure that the reactors were sufficiently encased to protect them from blasts from another source from within the sub. Of course, had the reactors been hit from a torpedo from outside the sub, it is conceivable that the casing protecting the nuclear reactor may not been sufficient enough to protect the nuclear reactor.

This raises an interesting question. Would either side benefit if a meltdown were to occur because one side destroyed the other side’s nuclear reactor? Fortunately, that question never had to be answered.

Later forensic examination of two of the reactor control room casualties showed extensive skeletal injuries which indicated that they had sustained shocks of just over 50g during the explosions. These shocks would have temporarily disoriented the operators and possibly other sailors further aft.

Twenty-three men working in the sixth through ninth compartments survived the two blasts. They gathered in the ninth compartment, which contained the secondary escape hatch (the primary hatch having been in the destroyed second compartment).

Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov (one of three surviving officers of that rank at that particular moment) appears to have taken charge, writing down the names of those who were in the ninth compartment. The air pressure in the compartment following the secondary explosions was still normal surface pressure and so it would be possible, at least from a physiological point of view, to don survival suits and use the hatch to escape one man at a time, swimming up through 100 metres (330 ft) of Arctic water to await help at the surface.

It is not known if the escape hatch was workable from the inside; opinions differ about how badly it was damaged. However, the men would likely have rejected risking the escape hatch even if it were operable. Escaping from a submerged sub is extremely dangerous even if it is necessary. For example, they could get the bends (too much nitrogen in their blood) if they rise to the surface too quickly and there is no ship on the surface that has the equipment to deal with people suffering from the bends. For this reason, they may have preferred instead to take their chances waiting for a submarine rescue ship to clamp itself onto the hatch.

It is not known with certainty just how long the remaining men survived in the compartment. As the nuclear reactors had automatically shut down, emergency power would soon have run out, plunging the crew into complete blackness. (It’s too bad that the designers didn’t think of a back-up generator that would kick in as soon as the reactors shut down or even support batteries that could keep the lights on for several hours)

Kolesnikov wrote three messages, the last two much less tidily. There has been much debate over how long the sailors survived. Russian sources say that they would have died very quickly. The Dutch recovery team reported a widely believed opinion that two to three hour survival time was possible in the stern-most compartment. In normal operation, water leaks into a stationary Oscar-II craft through the propeller shafts, and at 100 metres (330 ft) depth it would have been impossible to prevent this. Others point out that many superoxide chemical cartridges, used to absorb carbon dioxide and provide oxygen in an emergency, were found to have been used when the craft was recovered, suggesting survival of the remaining men for several days.

Ironically and sadly, the cartridges seem to have been the final cause of death because when such a cartridge comes in contact with oily sea water, it causes a chemical reaction and a flash fire. The official investigation into the disaster showed that some men survived this fire by plunging themselves under water (fire marks on bulkheads indicate the water was at waist level at the time) but the fire would have rapidly used up any remaining oxygen in the air, thereby causing death by asphyxiation as soon as they came up for air.

Now there is blame that can be shared by a number of people for this disaster. They include the sub’s designers and the person who should have inspected the welding of the torpedo but mostly, the blame has to go to the man who did the welding on the torpedo. If had done his job properly, the torpedo wouldn’t have exploded.
Now I said at the beginning of this article that the Russians, because of their pride didn’t call for assistance from other nations in time. We all know now that even if they did call for assistance in time, the men still couldn’t have been saved.

Initially the other ships in the exercise, all of which had detected an explosion, did not report it. Each only knew about its own part in the exercise, and ostensibly assumed that the explosion was that of a depth charge, and part of the exercise. That is a fair assumption. It was not until the evening that commanders stated that they became concerned that they had heard nothing from the Kursk. Later in the evening and after repeated attempts to contact the Kursk had failed, a search and rescue operation was launched. The rescue ship Rudnitsky carrying two submersible rescue vessels, AS-32 and the Priz (AS-34) reached the disaster area at around 8:40 AM the following morning.

The Kursk was found in an upright position, with its nose plowed about 2 meters (78 inches) deep into the clay seabed, at a depth of 108 meters (354 feet). The periscope was raised, indicating the accident occurred at a low depth. The bow and the sail bridge (conning tower) showed signs of damage, the conning tower windows were smashed and two missile tube lids were torn off. Fragments of both outer and inner hull were found nearby, including a fragment of the Kursk's nose weighing 5 metric tons, indicating a massive explosion in the forward torpedo room.

The Priz reached the Kursk's ninth compartment the day after the accident, but failed to make a physical connection with it. Bad weather prevented further attempts on Tuesday and Wednesday. A further attempt on Thursday again made contact but failed to create a vacuum seal required to connect the two vessels.

The United States offered the use of one of its two Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles, as did the British government, but all offers were refused by the Russian government. Four days after the accident on the 16th of August 2000, the Russian government finally accepted the British and Norwegian governments' assistance and a rescue ship was dispatched from Norway on the 17th of August and reached the site on the 19th of August. British and Norwegian deep-sea divers reached the ninth compartment escape hatch on Sunday, the 20th of August. They were able to determine that the compartment was flooded, and all hope of finding survivors was lost.

Could they have saved those in the ninth compartment if they had arrived earlier? We will never know because we don’t know when they died.

The first fax sent from the Russian Navy to the various Press offices said the submarine had "minor technical difficulties". The government downplayed the incident and then claimed bad weather was making it impossible to rescue the people on board.
In June of 2002, the Russian government investigation into the accident officially concluded that a faulty torpedo sank the Kursk in the summer of 2000.

The hopelessly flawed rescue attempt, hampered by badly designed and decrepit equipment, illustrated the fatal decline of Russia's military power. The navy's callous approach to the families of the missing men was reminiscent of an earlier Soviet insensitivity to individual misery. The lies and incompetent cover-up attempts launched by both the navy and the government were resurrected from a pre-Glasnost era. The wildly contradictory conspiracy theories about what caused the catastrophe said more about a naval high command in turmoil, fumbling for a scapegoat, than about the accident itself.

The disaster could have been avoided if everyone connected to the designing and the building of the Kursk had done their jobs properly and if the welder hadn’t screwed up when he welded the torpedo and if the torpedo had been properly inspected. But then, that is the story of a great number of catastrophes world wide. As I said earlier in this piece—too smart, too late.

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