Out Of The Depths
On August 12, 2000, a quantity of highly concentrated Hydrogen peroxide leaked from a poorly wielded torpedo, making contact with an unknown amount of rust. The result: Several explosions with the combined equivalent force of 4-7 tons of TNT registered on seismographs across Northern Europe and left two nuclear reactors, two steam turbines, and 23 surviving (out of 118) Russian sailors in utter darkness while fighting for breath 108 meters beneath the Barents Sea. As the men fumbled helplessly about compartment 9 of the largest attack Submarine ever built, likely dispirited, certainly dazed, and waiting for a rescue that would never materialize, unpleasant thoughts became consequential realities. The need for breathable air was fast becoming a dictating force in their lives. The compartment was taking on water and they were trapped far beyond the conventional sense of the word. It was the grimmest of circumstances. The men had access to a number of potassium superoxide chemical cartridges, used to both absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen for survival under such unfortunate circumstances. The contraptions aren’t without serious risk, however, and amid the terrible confusion a sailor lost his grip and dropped one into the surrounding salt water. In terms of prolonging their lives, the resulting chemical reaction was not a productive step. Post-event analysis of compartment 9 and the burn marks within revealed the water to have been approximately hip deep at the moment of the reaction and consequent flash fire.
Now, in that final moment the sailors were confronted by three choices: 1) Remain above water and burn to death within a submarine 354 feet below the Sea. 2) Remain below water and drown within a submarine 354 feet below the Sea. 3) Remain below water long enough for the fire to devour the remaining oxygen within the compartment and [then] resurface to asphyxiate in a submarine 354 feet beneath the Sea.
Now, as I sit and ponder the fate of the men on the K-141 Kursk, I’m left with a nagging thought….All of them (Russian sailors chock-full of vodka-laced tales of WWII submarine woes) must have realized, subconsciously or otherwise, that on a long enough time line any sub will sink. So they had at least partial expectation. They were men, military, and Russian. The bravado factor is certainly pertinent. When facing death, testosterone counts for something. They also died together, in familiar company and in an environment to which they had become largely accustomed. Most importantly, the men had options – however brief. To a certain extent they were able to determine their ultimate fates. That is much easier than dying alone, or with a stranger, in completely unfamiliar territory and with no choice in the matter of departing. Death can be much, much worse.
DEDICATED TO THE 118 MEN WHO DIED, TOGETHER, AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BARENTS SEA.