The Kursk

The Russian Submarine That Sank in the Barents Sea

A picture of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk while docked at a Russian home port.
The Russian nuclear submarine 'Kursk' docked at a northern Russian home base port Zapadnaya Lista, in Bellona. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Newsmakers)

On August 12, 2000, the Russian Oscar-II class nuclear submarine, the Kursk, sank in the Barents Sea during naval exercises. The world watched and waited to find out if any of the 118 crew were still alive.

The Accident

On August 12, 2000, the Kursk was out in the Barents Sea for military exercises. During the exercise, the Kursk submarine was supposed to fire two dummy torpedoes at the Russian battle cruiser, the Pyotr Velikiy.

After firing the dummy torpedoes at 11:28 a.m., an explosion went off on the Kursk. Although at the time Russians believed the Kursk must have hit another ship or an old World War II mine, it is now believed that highly volatile hydrogen peroxide fuel from one of the torpedoes on board the Kursk leaked out, started a fire, and then exploded.

The Kursk then sank to 354 feet (108 meters) in the frigid waters of the Barents Sea.

Occurring just 135 seconds after the first explosion, another explosion ripped through the Kursk, possibly when the Kursk hit the seabed. This second explosion was even larger than the first and was most likely caused by the rest of the torpedoes on board the Kursk exploding.

Rescue Attempts

At first, the Russians didn't realize that the Kursk had sunk. It wasn't until that evening, when the Kursk failed to check in, that the Russians began to worry that something might be wrong and sent out rescue ships.

By the morning of August 13, 2000, the Russians had found the disaster area and began to attempt a rescue. However, because of a lack of modern rescue equipment, the angle of the Kursk, and bad weather, all of the Russian rescue attempts failed.

Knowing that time was of the essence, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway all offered to help rescue any survivors.

For several crucial days, the Russians refused.

The world watched and waited for news. With the Kursk at the bottom of the sea, no one was sure whether or not anyone had survived. As the hours and days stretched on with no rescue in sight, criticisms over the Russian response to the disaster began to flare.

It seemed to many that Russia was still stuck with a Cold War mentality where they would not admit to their own limitations and would not trust help from outsiders.

After four days with no success and mounting criticism from around the world, the Russians finally accepted international help on August 16, 2000, four days after the disaster occurred.

What Happened to the Kursk Crew?

On August 21, 2000, nine days after the Kursk exploded and sank to the seabed, Norwegian divers successfully opened both the outer and inner airlock hatches at the rear of the submarine (the only section expected to contain survivors). The divers saw that the cabin had been flooded and thus concluded that all 118 on board the Kursk had died.

The heart-wrenching part of the story was that there had been survivors - 23 of them to be exact. When the body of Lieutenant Captain Dmitri Kolesnikov was recovered, a note was found in his pocket, written several hours after the last explosion, stating that 23 men had survived.

There were also several reports of hammering on the hull during the two days after the disaster. Then nothing more was heard.

Raising the Kursk

On October 7, 2001, the Dutch company, Mammoet, raised the wreck of the Kursk and then towed it to the docks at Roslyakovo in Russia. For safety reasons, they cut off the bow (the location of the torpedo compartment) and left that on the seabed floor. The heavily damaged bow section was later recovered in 2002.

The recovery of the Kursk wreckage allowed for the recovery of the dead, who were then buried in Russia with military honors.