Kursk recovery operation

Publish date: November 16, 2000

Written by: Sergey Filippov

A detailed account of the Kursk recovery operation.

Ilya Klebanov, who heads the Kursk inquiry commission, said that the cause to the submarine’s disaster would be named on November 8th. But nothing new was said at that day, except for speculations from the Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Kuroedov. The Admiral was in the press saying that he had facts but not evidence to support the version that the Kursk was sunk by a foreign submarine. Mr Klebanov said he also leaned towards the collision theory but advised to wait until the submarine is raised before drawing any definitive conclusions. The lifting operation is being discussed with a number of Western companies and is likely to take place in late summer or early autumn 2001.

The nuclear powered cruiser Peter the Great is currently at the place of the accident, shelling the area around with bombs and hand grenades. The Northern Fleet officials say they are protecting the area from foreign intrusion.

The Norwegian vessel-platform Regalia arrived to the place of the Kursk submarine accident. To find the best stationary location, the platform locked on satellite and adjusted its position using auxiliary engines. The platform was to stay in this fixed position throughout the length of the operation.

The Russian side evaluated independently radiation levels, water temperature, strength of underwater currents next to the submarine and light conditions. Regalia is carrying a set of underwater measuring equipment as well.

At 5am, the divers started drilling a hole in the outer hull above the 8th compartment. During this operation, the divers encountered problems taking off the rubber cover from the submarine’s hull. The Regalia platform had to use crane to pull off 10cm thick rubber layer.

At about 11am, the divers started to drill a new hole above the 9th compartment, close to the rescue hatch. At 1:30pm, they returned to the 8th compartment due to difficulties in making progress on the 9th compartment. Before the divers cut the hole wide enough to get in, they had made a smaller one, 10cm in diameter, to test the water content and see if any radiation was inside.

The methods of drilling through the submarine’s outer and inner hulls are principally different. The divers cut the outer hull of the submarine using a plasma torch. The inner hull of the submarine (30cm to 40cm wide) was cut by high-pressure seawater mixed with diamond particles. This mixture is funnelled to a special cylindrical cutting torch under high pressure of, approximately 2 tons per square centimetre. Halliburton provided all the cutting equipment. An underwater robot that was attached to the submarine’s hull did this job.

During the operations, the divers had to stay in the so-called diving bell to avoid the painful procedure of decompression.

After all required analysis had been completed inside the 8th compartment, it was concluded that there was no danger of radiation exposure for the divers.

On the night of October 22-23, the clearing of the debris between the outer and inner hulls of the 8th compartment was completed. The space between the two hulls contains various pipelines, equipment, and high-pressure air tanks.

The divers had been drilling window (150cm x 75cm) in the inner hull of the 8th compartment the whole day. The intention was to spend 15 to16 hours on this part of operation.

But the operation had to be interrupted due to stormy weather. In the evening, a strong gale started with the wind speed up to 25m per second.

At about 2am, the Norwegian divers decided to work despite the strong gale, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Strong wind moved the Regalia from its stationary position.

At 9am, the diving operation resumed, but divers were not able to continue cutting the hull due to the gale. They were working on to discharge air from the high-pressure tanks located between the two hulls next to the 7th compartment. But the operation failed due to the strong gale.

Late at night, the divers expanded the hole in the inner hull of the 8th compartment, but they were not on schedule (15 to 16 hours). The operation took more time because the bulkhead (thick cross-sectional metal grid that connects two compartments) was in their way – an apparent miscalculation in the operation planning.

At 3:01pm, a Russian diver, warrant officer Sergey Shmygin, was the first to enter the 8th compartment of the Kursk. The captain of the 2nd rank, Andrey Zvyagintsev, assisted him. Sergey Shmygin investigated five meters of passage from the stern bulkhead and towards the bow of the submarine. He noticed an air cushion in the area of the 21st bulkhead. No bodies of the crewmembers were found. The passage was too narrow for the diver to move further towards the 7th compartment. Consequently, Shmygin moved towards the stern part.

The diver managed to reach the hatch to the lower decks of the 8th compartment, but the hatch was locked. The attempt to open it was unsuccessful. Then Shmygin reached the bulkhead hatch that connects the 8th and the 9th compartments and managed to open it. Water inside the 9th compartment was muddy, and thus visibility was much worse than inside the 8th compartment. The mud had to be pumped out to improve visibility in the 9th compartment. Shmygin managed to unseal a hatch in gas-proof section in the floor where crewmembers could hide in case of fire, but none of them was inside. After that, Shmygin returned to the 8th compartment through one of the hatches that led to the lower deck where the turbine control post is located. Three bodies of crewmembers were found there. The diving operation was put on hold after that. During the first shift three bodies of the submariners were found and raised to the surface by the divers at 7:40pm. During the second night shift the divers recovered one more body. The body was blocked by boxes and it took two hours to get to it. The body was raised at approximately 0:30am.

Seawater preserves remains of bodies much longer. The divers did not have any difficulties recovering them. Having been in seawater for several weeks, they had a condition of so-called "zero buoyancy". So it was not hard to carry them. The divers working on the Kursk submarine were advised not to look at faces of the perished submariners to avoid psychological stress. Six psychologists were working onboard of the Regalia platform ready to assist the divers.

Worsening of the weather conditions led to a pause in the diving operation. Wind force increased to 23 meters per second, strong breeze.

A note containing personal and service information was found on one of the crewmembers, captain-lieutenant Dmitry Kolesnikov.

The letter was written between 1:34pm and 3:15pm on August 12. It reads that the most of the submarine’s crew from 6th, 7th, and 8th compartments moved to the refuge section that is the 9th compartment at 12:58pm on August 12. In addition, it said that two or three of the crewmembers intended to make an attempt to leave the sunken submarine through the rescue hatch of the 9th compartment.

Here is the content of the letter written by the captain-lieutenant, the commander of the 7th compartment of the submarine, Dmitry Kolesnikov, which military officials revealed to the press.

The text of the letter is clear to read: "1:15pm. All crewmembers from 6th, 7th and 8th compartments moved to the 9th compartment. There are 23 of us. We took this decision because of the accident. None of us will be able to get to the surface."

Then digits are written in bad hand writing: "1:5… I am writing blind."

Two copies were made from this note. The official part was given to the Commander of the Northern Fleet, Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, and the personal part to sailor’s wife, Olga Kolesnikova. The original letter was given to investigators from the Military Prosecutor Office of the Russian Federation. The note was classified as “top secret”.

The Moscow-based newspaper Zhizn wrote that one of the medical experts told them that the note also contained the following words: "Captain died… I am the only chief officer left onboard… It hurts… Murdered… August 15th." The officials from the Northern Fleet said the information was a fake.

The head of Rubin design bureau, Igor Spassky, said at a press conference in St Petersburg the same day that one of the purposes for divers was to examine the rescue capsule. He said that it was very important to find out why the submariners were not able to use it. Mr Spassky did not deny that the use of the rescue capsule might be complicated, and the Rubin design bureau intends to simplify its design.

The divers were working in compartments 8th and 9th, but no bodies were recovered. At that time 12 bodies were raised from the boat. Most of them were dressed in warm clothes. The clothes are usually put on under diving suits.

Cameras were used to search sections of the 9th compartment. It showed much destruction that would hamper the divers moving ahead. Operation in the 9th compartment was over.

First results of search in the 9th compartment showed that no local fire started inside the compartment. One of the raised bodies had no signs of any burns. Boxes and equipment littering the area and the narrow passage made it difficult for the divers to go down into the section. Electrical lines are going through it up to the inner hull. The auxiliary electrical engine of the submarine is located there as well.

Several attempts were made to get into the 3rd compartment. 24 crewmembers were assigned to the compartment. An entrance to the shaft where Koral radio system is located is placed in the compartment. The shaft could serve as a refuge in case of flooding. The hatch to rescue capsule (designed to accommodate the whole crew) is located in the second compartment. The second compartment is the central command post of the submarine. 36 crewmembers are assigned to the compartment.

Officials from the Northern Fleet said that the crewmembers from compartment no.4 and likely no.5 could have moved to the third compartment (24 people altogether).

Unofficial sources say that the diving operation will focus on recovering confidential information. This compartment contains hydro-acoustic equipment, secret communication codes.

But work in the compartments no.2 and no.4 could represent higher risk for the divers. Video cameras showed that the passages inside the compartments were blocked by edged metal. Sources in the HQ of the Northern fleet said to a correspondent of the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda that designers installed 50% thinner bulkheads separating the first five compartments (reactors are in the fifth compartment).

Wind force is 17m per second, moderate breeze. The search in the third compartment is completed. But serious destruction and loose equipment did not let the divers get inside the submarine.

The mud in the compartment had to be washed out before it was possible to use cameras and to evaluate situation inside. Details of the destruction caused by a powerful explosion in the 2nd compartment were evident. The Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Kuroedov, ordered to stop operation in this compartment. The hole drilled in the hull was sealed off by a steel plate.

During week 44, the divers managed to cut a hole in the outer hull of the boat above the 4th compartment. That is one of the largest compartments of the submarine. Cabins, galley, ambulatory, gym and sauna were situated there. 12 crewmembers are assigned to this compartment. At night, divers cleared up debris between the hulls, and prepared to drill through the inner hull.

The research vessel Horizont arrived to the area of the diving operation to start monitoring the area for radiation. It replaced another research ship the Semyon Dezhnyov. The rescue ship of the Northern Fleet Altay is in the area as well assisting the Regalia.

Three sailors from the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk are officially identified. They are Aleksey Korkin (6-th compartment), Roman Martynov (8-th compartment) and Roman Kubikov (7-th compartment).

The divers continued clearing a place from debris to start drilling through the inner hull of the 4th compartment. The Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Kuroedov, said that once the work is completed in the 4th compartment, the divers would start on the 5th compartment. Admiral Kuroedov also said that the search in the 3rd compartment showed a massive amount of destruction and evidence of fire.

At night, a Russian diver managed to advance inside the 4th compartment only for one meter since visibility inside was very poor, even though the mud was washed out. The nature of the destruction proves that the explosion shock wave reached this compartment as well. All bulkheads of the service and living rooms are smashed down. There was no visible destruction of the bulkhead hatch however.

The Russian Navy will defend not the version but the standpoint that the cause of the Kursk’s disaster was a collision with a foreign submarine, said a representative the Navy’s HQ to Intefax on November 5th. He also said the leadership of the Navy would not comment on other theories.

Two more bodies recovered from the Kursk submarine were identified. They are Roman Kubikov and Vyacheslav Maynagashaev.

The divers continued working in the 4th compartment of the Kursk. They managed to advance two meters ahead into the compartment. Debris stands in their way creating a risk of damaging their diving suits. Besides, visibility in the compartment was poor. No one was found in the 4th compartment.

Due to insufficient results of the work in the 4th compartment, the Rubin representatives onboard the Regalia discussed the need to carry on the operation. The press service of the Northern Fleet said that the operation might be halted.

Halliburton corporation was contracted until November 10th. The platform completed operation on November 7th and went back to Norway.