On 7 April, 1989, the KOMSOMOLETS (the “MMKE”) while at a depth of 50 meters and southwest of Bear Island (at the top of the Norwegian Sea), caught fire at 1102 and six hours later sank in 4,500 feet of water. The sequence of events leading to the loss of this 1000-meter depth Soviet submarine and the damage control actions taken to save the KOMSOMOLETS should be of great interest to all people interested in submarine matters. Fortunately, glasnost in the USSR has permitted a great deal of unclassified information on the MIKE’s sinking to be disseminated by the Soviet news media. It has also allowed relevant authoritative statements to be made by Soviet naval personnel, including the most senior officers in the Soviet Navy.
Significantly, the KOMSOMOLETS sank in a matter of hours because of fire effects, whereas other Soviet subs consumed by fire took a day or more to sink. Pravda, a Soviet newspaper, on May 24, 1989, emphasized that “Never had a fire-stricken submarine sunk within a few hours!” Admiral Cherkashin’s implication that “a sub with its reservoirs of oxygen next to tanks of oil (high pressure air bottles were evidently above the oil stowage tanks in Compartment #7) and the air-vitalization plant next to bottles of hydrochloric acid” were booby traps waiting to be sprung, proved disastrously true.
Aware of a fire in electrical equipment in Compartment #7, the Captain of the MIKE ordered the ballast tanks blown with the high pressure air systems in order to surface the submarine. Thus, the high pressure air line running through #7 – with its plastic seals melted and an electric arc having ruptured the line – was incorrectly used to blow the after group of ballast tanks. This released a great amount of high pressure air into Compartment #7. (Solid-fuel gas generators were in all ballast tanks and might better have been used to blow the MIKE to the surface from deep submergence, in this emergency.) The high pressure air leaking into #7 fed a fire fueled by oil stowed there. It jammed the door from #7 to #6, and it ~uickly created so much heat (1,()()(fq and pressure (13 kg/em ) that the stuffing gland seal around the main shaft leading from #6 through #7 to the single screw, was destroyed. (This seal could not withstand more than 1.4 kg!cm2 of pressure.) ·At the same time, the cables through the hull in #7 caughC fire and their stuffing boxes were burned out, causing leakage from the sea into the compartment. The first booby trap was sprung.
Then, at 1624, after more than five hours of fire fighting and with the Captain still certain that his submarine was in stable condition and could be saved (the MIKE’s Captain Vanin, at that time, said, “There was no thought of sinking.”), the second booby trap was activated. Seven “air vitalization canisters” in Compartment #6 “blew up” with great force. (The “airtight vitalization tanks had oxygen-generating plates made of a material capable of burning even in water”, according to Admiral N. Cherkashin.)
The explosion of the canisters apparently ruptured the titanium pressure hull which was probably weakened by the great differential in temperature between the cold sea-water-exposed outer and the very hot inner side of the hull. This allowed heavy flooding into “the after three compartments” and resulted in the KOMSOMOLETS sinking stem first within 40 minutes. The spread of fire through the MIKE tells the story of the difficulties encountered by damage control personnel. Their successes in combating various effects from fire shows that there was a good deal of efficiency shown below decks. With a major fire started in Compartment #7, which contained the electric controllers and operating gear for the rudder and planes, an alarm and indicator at the damage control station in Compartment #3 warned that #7 was exceeding 70C?C of temperature. There was, however, no pressure gauge on the panel to subsequently warn of the build-up of pressure in #7 caused by the ruptured HP-air line.
Within a minute of the start of the fire, “a watch stander in #6” began feeding LOKh, a “fire extinguishing chemical” (freon) into #7. But it failed to produce the desired result of snuffing out the fire because the high pressure and high temperature generated in the compartment seriously reduced the efficiency of this fire-fighting system. An attempt was then made to get the man on watch at the electric controls in #7 out of the compartment, but with the door between compartments jammed, he evidently perished from inhaling the freon or from the effects of the fire. The jammed door plus the ruptured seal arm nd the main shaft allowed smoke and flames to shoot into #6. Quickly, the “right turbo-generator in #6 was observed spurting turbine oil which atomized in the high temperature developed and caught on fire causing a raging uncontrollable fire in #6 as well. Air pressure also built-up in #6 to about 13 kg/cm2 and this high pressure, now in the after two compartments, was not measurably reduced for the next 44 minutes. Early in the emergency, a short circuit in the power network caused a large number of small fires throughout the submarine. “Certain instruments failed to withstand the tremendous surge of current before the safety system could operate.” Most noticeably, a fire broke out in the damage control panel in the control room. But it was readily eliminated using a fire extinguisher
Aware of the fire in the MIKE’s stern compartment, LL I. Orlov, in Compartment #4, rapidly and efficiently secured the reactor. He “lowered the compensating grid onto the lower end pieces shutting the reactor down 100%. After the emergency control rods in the reactor had gone down automatically, he brought the fuel rods down as far as possible. He then checked instruments to confirm that the reactor had cooled to 35°C in the first loop.” The autonomous reactor systems would operate even if the sub’s entire power network failed. Also, the reactor’s protection system is automatic. (A Norwegian scientific team, within a month after the MIKE’s sinking determined that there was no sign of excess radiation or loss of nuclear material from the reactor on the ocean floor. The reactor, according to TASS of April 12, 1989, was designed to withstand the 150 atmospheres of pressure to which it is now exposed.
Also, the nuclear weapons carried, though on the bottom, are designed to remain intact at the depth of the sunken MIKE. Shortly after the fire in #7 was evaluated by the MIKE’s skipper, he brought the submarine to periscope depth and then to the surface at 1116, with the propeller stopped and with jammed stern planes and rudder. The MIKE was slightly down by the stem. (Months after the disaster, Soviet Admirals had the MIKE at over 150 meters depth when the fire started. Was this to infer that Soviet submarines can be brought competently up from a greater depth than that from which open sources reported the U.S. Navy’s TIIRESHER was at when it failed to rise to the surface?)
LOKh was fed into #6 from #5 at about 1115 with no resulting damping of the fire in #6. At this time, it was noted that all communications aft of the control room were lost, and the diesel generator for carrying the electric load was promptly started by Captain 3rd Rank I. Spenkov. But at 1145 the diesel cooling system failed and the diesel engine stopped.
Fires broke out in Compartment #4 and in the engine control compartment #5 at 1121, with five men in #4 seriously burned before the fires were brought under control in a matter of a few minutes. The fire fighting situation was badly aggravated by a leak in the MIKE’s special fixed-breathing system, according to Admiral Chemavin. The people who plugged into the line while working in compartments filled with smoke were poisoned. At 1212 three people in Compartment #2, (the living quarters), who were using the sub’s emergency breathing apparatus passed out due to the carbon monoxide fed into the line from a leak in the line in #7. The men were promptly taken topside for revival. The individual breathing masks donned by fire fighters were not altogether fit for the job, Admiral Chemavin noted. “After 20 minutes in an asphyxiating environment the users became unconscious in their masks. When brought topside and then forced to abandon the submarine they were so weak in the 3°C water that they drowned.”
At 1645, just prior to the order to “Abandon Ship”, Compartment #1 was unsealed and its battery hold rigged for ventilation, probably to reduce the possibility of battery explosions during evacuation of the MIKE.
Just before the MIKE sank, Captain Vanin climbed into the escape chamber (VSK) and joined five other members of the crew inside. After securing the lower hatch to the VSK, an attempt was made at 1705 to free the capsule as the MIKE started sinking rapidly. However the VSK was secured too tightly to the MIKE’s hull to be broken free. (The VSK had previously tom loose during a storm and had surfaced spontaneously. So when it was recovered it was overzealously re-secured to the MIKE’s hull.) As the VSK, still attached to the submarine, passed about 400 meters of depth it lost its air-tightness so the smoke and gases from inside the MIKE lea ked into the VSK affecting the occupants and causing them to don rescue masks. At approximately 600 meters depth, heavy internal explosions were heard and felt within the VSK and were thought to be the bulkheads collapsing – indicating that the bulkheads had a failure pressure of about SO% of the MIKE’s pressure hull. These explosions evidently broke the VSK loose and it started its ascent to the surface. On hitting the surface, the upper hatch blew open due to pressure inside the capsule and two of its occupants were catapulted into the 3°C sea -with only one surviving. The carbon monoxide gas which had leaked into the VSK caused the others to perish.
Prior to the escape capsule’s tragedy, it had taken 11!2 hours to jack the 25-man life raft containers topside into a position to be used. The gears had a small travel and had evidently “become rusty during the MIKE’s 39-day voyage.”
Significantly, the MIKE had been operated for a prolonged period of time at 1,000 meters depth during its deployment probably to test the utility of their sonars in the deep sound channel and the MIKE’s torpedo offense and defense capabilities at such a depth.
In addition to the scenario detailed above, there were public statements by Soviet sources about damage control deficiencies which were revealed well after the MIKE’s sinking. A listing of these deficiencies sheds some light on why things happened the way they did:
- the KOMSOMOLETS was on her maiden voyage “with its second crew”, a practice seldom observed. Thus, according to Admiral Cherkashin, “the second crew had trained on a simulator far from all systems mockups of the ‘prototype’;”
- Soviet secrecy had in the past concealed its naval accidents, preventing a dissemination of lessons teamed from previous submarine fires;
- Captains of Soviet subs were not aUowed to send out an SOS, hence in this emergency the response from other rescue activities lagged;
- the MIKE’s small crew of 68 might have provided too few damage control people to adequately handle the emergency experienced;
- the MIKE was an “experimental submarine” solving 12 important problems during the patrol;
- Soviet submarine damage control instructions do not deal with a 2.compartment fire;
- it was indicated that a Soviet submarine should be expected to survive the total flooding of a single compartment, and in some cases the flooding of non-adjacent compartments, but that “two adjacent compartments cannot be flooded and still survive;
- not all routes for the spread of fire bad been considered in the design of the MIKE;
- below decks, there was no comprehensive system for evaluating the situation in the damaged compartments;
- the personnel did not assume their Damage Control Bill stations in a timely manner;
- there were no heat resistant suits or asbestos masks available;
- safety gear was stowed in positions which were difficult to reach;
- evacuation of personnel, particularly those injured or unconscious, from the MIKE was less than satisfactory;
- and there were no Kingston valves in the main ballast tanks, reducing reserve buoyancy as water in the tanks fluctuated with the MIKE’s pitching.
The story told here is not a pretty one with its loss of an advanced type of attack submarine and the perishing of 42 people on board. Much information about Soviet submarines was revealed by this incident and should be carefully and well digested — because the concept of glasnost may well be repealed in the near future, with information about submarines again relegated to tight security.