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20 years since Komsomolets sank

On April 7, 1989, the Soviet Union’s most advanced and unique nuclear powered submarine -Komsomolets - sank in the Norwegian Sea following a fire. 42 submariners died, while a Norwegian surveillance aircraft was circling over the sinking submarine.

Location

Komsomolets was on her way home to the Northern fleet’s submarine base at Zapadnaya Litsa on the Kola Peninsula after a patrol in the northern waters in the morning on April 7.

The submarine, called the “Golden Fish” among the Northern fleet’s officers, was the only of the Mike-class, a unique titanium-hulled submarine commissioned in 1984. Komsomolets could go deep, very deep. Able to dive down to 1,000 meter (3,000 feet) under the surface she was impossible to spot from any American satellites or underwater sound-detections systems. Cold War analysts said Komsomolets was the Soviet Unions answer to Ronald Reagen’s Star Wars programme. When the Americans went high up to space, the Soviets dive deeper down with its nuclear weapons.

Cruising submerged at 1000 meters she could elude NATO anti-submarine systems and bring its two nuclear warheads right up to North America’s eastern seaboard. Komsomolets was armed with two nuclear-tipped torpedoes on the last voyage.

This April morning was as normal on board. The crew was looking forward to disembark after 37 days at sea. At home, in Zapadnaya Litsa, their wives or girlfriends, maybe some children, relatives and friends were waiting for the crew to come home. Like many times before. Zapadnaya Litsa is the most western located submarine base on the Kola Peninsula. Its distance from the border to Norway is just some 50 kilometres.

Then, at 11:03 Moscow time the alarm bell started to ring. The crew ran to their different emergency posts and tasks. They had done this many times before during drills. But this morning it was no drill. A fire had started in the very rear compartment of the submarine.

When the alarm bell went off Komsomolets was at a depth of 160 meters some 180 kilometres south of Bear Island. Eleven minutes after the fire was detected Komsomolets made an emergency surfacing. 

At surface the commanding officer made emergency signals to the Northern fleets head command in Severomorsk. The fire onboard had caused short circuits in the electrical system and the nuclear reactor triggered its emergency systems and was shut-down. The fire spread to other compartments and attempts to extinguish the flames by the crew were unsuccessful.

The submarine lost power and ran out of compressed air necessary to keep the submarine floating. At 17:00, Komsomolets lost buoyancy and stability. The crew began to lower the life rafts. But there were not enough rafts, and the rafts within reach didn’t float properly.

At 17:08 Komsomolets sank.

In the following hour 42 submariners lost their life in the cold sea. The crew of a Norwegian surveillance Orion aircraft circling over witnessed the tragedy happening.

Just after 18:00 the first vessels arrived. The survivors were taken aboard the Soviet trawler Oma and the cargo vessel Aleksandr Khlobystsov. 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.

25 of the 67 crew members from Komsomolets survived. The submarine, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, remains at the seabed at a depth of 1685 meters. 

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.

The reason why Komsomolets sank following the fire may never be clear. Two investigations, one by a USSR 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 USSR 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.

On the 10 year’s anniversary in April 1999, 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. 

Today, 20 years after, at least Norway and Russia have a friendly relation and can cooperate together on possible future rescue operations in the north.