Ten years after Komsomolets

MURMANSK (Bellona Web): Ten years after an accident sent the nuclear-powered submarine Komsomolets to the bottom of the Norwegian Sea, no one has adequately explained why 42 sailors lost their lives.

Murmansk and St. Petersburg marked the tenth anniversary of the tragedy with ceremonies commemorating the victims on April 7th, including one in Zaozersk dedicating a monument to the Komsomolets victims. Zaozersk is the naval city in Zapadnaya Litsa where crewmembers and their families lived before the ‘Komsomolets’ disaster.

In the Barents Sea, just outside the Litsa fjord, the crew of the nuclear-powered submarine Orel and two other naval vessels spread flowers on the sea.

At the Serafimovskij memorial in St. Petersburg, where the victims are buried, several hundred people gathered to remember. Ten years after the accident, the survivors and the victim’s families still have no answers. Closure seems impossible.

Fruitless investigations
Two investigations, one by a state commission and another conducted independently, failed to furnish evidence sufficient enough to explain why the accident occurred and why it was so costly. Survivors and the still-mourning families are still without the answers that might at least bring understanding.

The state commission concluded that no one was to blame for the submarine’s sinking. But the independent commission suggested there was reason to believe that Komsomolets had several construction flaws. Others claim the crew was insufficiently trained to operate the advanced submarine.

All the claims and outstanding questions received prominent play with the local Murmansk media on Wednesday. The Murmansk daily, Polyarnaya Pravda, used their editorial space to conclude the truth will forever be buried in the seabed off Norway’s continental shelf.

‘Golden Fish’
Komsomolets, called the ‘Golden Fish’ among the Northern Fleet’s officers, was the only submarine of the Mike class. It was one of the most advanced submarines in the navy because of its ability to dive nearly twice as deep as most.

Cruising submerged at 1000 meters it could elude NATO anti-submarine systems and bring its two nuclear warheads right up to North America’s eastern seaboard

But the ill-fated Komsomolets was never allowed to fulfil its promise.

On February 28th, 1989 it raised anchor at its home base of Zapadnaya Litsa. At 11:03 a.m. on April 7th, after 37 days at sea, an electrical fire started astern. Within minutes, short circuits were reported all over the submarine. Most of the security systems aboard failed, and several minor fires broke out. After struggling against the flames for hours, the crew had to evacuate the submarine.

At 5:08 p.m., Komsomolets sank. Two of the crew succumbed to smoke from the fire: 40 died of exposure in the cold Norwegian Sea. The survivors were taken aboard the Soviet trawler Oma and the cargo vessel Alexei Hlobistov, both of which arrived in the area just after 6:00 p.m.

Cold War communication
By then the evacuated crew had been in frigid seawater for more than one hour. The freezing survivors and the bodies of the victims were taken to Severomorsk on the Kola peninsula aboard the nuclear-powered cruiser, Kirov.

Compounding the tragedy, the crew’s families did not receive notice of any deaths until April 10th, three days after the accident. In another comment on the times, Northern Fleet commanders never asked Norwegain authorities for rescue assistance. The Cold War had not yet thawed.

No mutual assistance agreement for rescue in northern waters existed in 1989 between Norway and the Soviet Union. Norwegain helicopters would have had six hours to intervene between the time of the fire and the time of the sub’s sinking.

Komsomolets, its PWR reactor and two nuclear warheads lie 180 km south-east of Bear Island at a depth of 1,685m. Several examinations of the area where the sub sank have measured only small leaks of radioactivity from the wreck – so far.

Thomas Nilsen