Will the Russians let national pride stand in the way of saving a hundred men's lives?
August 15, 2000 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Will the Russians let national pride stand in the way of saving a hundred men's lives? I sure hope not. I hope they ask for help. I don't give a damn about national pride, but I want those men back. The DSRV is the modern descendant of a diving bell which was used in 1939 to rescue much of the crew of USS Squalus, which sank during a test mission. It was the first time in history that men had been saved from a sunken submarine.
posted by Steven Den Beste (34 comments total)
The real reason the US is willing to help: so we can be the heroes in the inevitable movie "based on the true story".

I've deliberately been avoiding coverage of this story because the very idea of those men trapped on the ocean floor all this time makes me feel ill. It doesn't help that the day before this story hit the news, I watched Das Boot. Excellent film, btw. Almost too effective.
posted by wiremommy at 6:36 PM on August 15, 2000

I was saying to a friend earlier today that I'm surprised the Navy Seals haven't just jumped in there. I mean isn't this kinda thing right up their alley? They're determined and crazy and measure up to any challenge that has ever been handed to them.

The republicans have been unhappy with Clinton's cutting back on our defense. However, regardless of Clinton's motives, what has happened is we have one hell of a lean mean fighting machine in our military right now. Perhaps stronger in many ways than ever in the history of our country. Our major problem is that we're stretched a little thin.

I think this would be an ideal time for the American military to step in and be the heroes in the inevitable movie. We can't make a step though without Russia's go ahead. If they're too proud to ask for help, we can't stand in their way. To do so might be misconstrued as an act of war, no matter how sound and humanitarian our intent and effort.
posted by ZachsMind at 6:47 PM on August 15, 2000

Actually, a different report suggests that they may all already be dead.

There are secrets from WWII which will never be revealed. After USS Arizona was sunk by the Japanese, many crewmen were trapped within her in her lowest decks, which would have put them near the surface after the ship rolled over. They did not die immediately. Their names are known; it was possible to communicate with them by tapping on the hull. But there was absolutely no possible way to save them. Some of them took weeks to die but they all died eventually. Their names have never been revealed and never will be, because there's no point and because of the pain it would cause their families. Better to let them think of their loved ones dying a quick, clean death.

It's hard to think of a more horrible lonely death than to be trapped in a ship which has sunk, waiting for your air to slowly run out.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:50 PM on August 15, 2000

That's not the kind of thing that the Seals do; they're into demolition work. Also, scuba divers can't do anything; the Russians already have sent scuba divers down themselves.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:51 PM on August 15, 2000

They've quietly asked NATO for help. Sadly, it looks as if the weather's conspiring against all their efforts.
posted by holgate at 6:51 PM on August 15, 2000

Deep water work is a specialty type of diving; the issues of pressure and temperature make it out of the scope of SEAL's. The Avalon and Mystic and their 4 man crews are the kind of crazy nutcases that are custom designed and trained to do this sort of work.

And I say that with the greatest respect. Going down hundreds of meters and rescuing people from "hot" boats is the work of blessedly insane.
posted by alhawkins at 7:52 PM on August 15, 2000

Details on the Avalon and Mystic can be found at Janes, too.
posted by alhawkins at 7:55 PM on August 15, 2000

A group of Russian military officers went to NATO headquarters Tuesday night to determine how the Western defense alliance could help rescue a disabled Russian nuclear submarine.

Um... you can call us on the phone, and we'll go get them.

We're *very* good at this sort of thing.
posted by baylink at 8:09 PM on August 15, 2000

Well, whatever decision they make, they better make it damned fast, because they're running out of time.

Oxygen is not the only danger. From what I've read, the boat is still leaking and still taking on water. Also, they long since shut down the reactors and it's not clear whether they have any power left for heat and light. (Do nukie subs carry big batteries? It seems unlikely.) Hypothermia could kill the crew just as a fast as hypoxia. Sitting in pitch black, freezing, has to be very lonely even when there are men around you. (Of course, they'll be sitting in tight groups to keep warm, but it's still a problem.)

One of the really big advantages of Avalon is that it operates from one sub to another and so surface weather conditions don't matter, and there's no nonsense about depressurization to avoid the bends. It was deliberately designed that way because they thought it might be necessary to use it under the polar icecap where there is no access to the surface at all. I wonder if one of the appropriately equiped SSNs is near by to support Avalon should she try. There are 16; one would hope that at least one would be near enough there to be able to reach it by Thursday, the earliest that Avalon could reach the area. (I would guess one is heading that way now anyway, request or no request, just in case.) Unforunately, Kursk is listing 60 degrees and that may well make a rescue by Avalon impossible, and will certainly make it damned hard. How much can they bank her?

I WANT THOSE MEN BACK. I don't care what nationality they are. And I'm quite certain that the crew of the Avalon would take just as many chances and try just as hard for Russians as for Americans or British or French.

It's difficult to believe, but the Russian rescue system is actually more primitive than the one used in 1939 to rescue the crew of USS Squalus. The 1939 US system had a sealed bell, so it could be brought to the surface as fast as the winch could raise it because the men in the bell weren't subjected to high pressure and weren't at risk of the bends.

By the way, Jay, you're full of it. This is not an easy job. And while Avalon has made many practice runs, it's never made a real rescue before. And it's always different when it's real.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:39 PM on August 15, 2000

Their names have never been revealed and never will be, because there's no point and because of the pain it would cause their families. Better to let them think of their loved ones dying a quick, clean death.

I think a democratic country has an obligation to be brutally honest about things like this. You get into a dicey area when secrets are kept to spare relatives' feelings, because they also can be used for PR purposes. I always felt like the Reagan administration did a disservice by pretending that the Challenger astronauts died in the initial explosion.
posted by rcade at 6:50 AM on August 16, 2000

What if we never had the Vietnam Wall Memorial? The names of those who are sacrificed should be remembered for history. If for no reason than to give us faces to the forms. After this incident, the nations of the world should look hard at Russia, and find some way to insure that their navy has the capability for safe seafaring.

We grounded the Concorde. I don't see why we can't examine the design of the Kursk and ask the UN to put pressure on the Kremlin to dock all similar designed vessels. The Cold War is over. We're a global community now dammit, and the lives of those men may already be forfeit because of pride, cowardice and unnecessary fears of secrecy. It's about time the old guard realized cat n mouse games in the oceans are acts of immature childish stupidity.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:07 AM on August 16, 2000

All we can say from the British point of view, we're standing by in Norway and they're reading to move in.

BBC News reported on television yesterday that the LR5 rescue team in question have returned from such rescue practises in the Barents' Sea only a month ago. They're about the best people to have a go, only I think Russia has left it too late in asking for NATO/British assistance.
posted by williamtry at 7:14 AM on August 16, 2000

After USS Arizona was sunk by the Japanese, many crewmen were trapped within her in her lowest decks, which would have put them near the surface after the ship rolled over. They did not die immediately

Actually, the Arizona didn't roll over, it just sank. When you visit the memorial, you can see what's left of the top deck of the ship just beneath the surface of the water. (In fact, check out the picture on this page, and you can just make out the outline of the ship and see some of the superstructure that is still exposed above the water.) The rest of your story is correct, though. There were three men in particular who lived for several weeks before (presumably) suffocating.

To drift the topic yet further, the weirdest thing about visiting the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor is that our tour group was well over 50% Japanese natives. I think it's interesting that so many Japanese visit Pearl Harbor. But then, I'd probably want to go see any memorial that may exist for the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki if I ever made it to Japan.
posted by daveadams at 7:15 AM on August 16, 2000

Steve: Their names have never been revealed and never will be, because there's no point and because of the pain it would cause their families. Better to let them think of their loved ones dying a quick, clean death.

rcade: I think a democratic country has an obligation to be brutally honest about things like this.

Zach: What if we never had the Vietnam Wall Memorial? The names of those who are sacrificed should be remembered for history.

To clarify Steve's point, the names of all 1177 of the individuals who died on the Arizona are memorialized at Pearl Harbor. The names are there and it's a humbling sight: a huge (20x20?) marble wall literally covered with names. I'm pretty sure Steve was just pointing out that the names of those individuals who didn't die instantly and had to suffer for weeks inside the hull of the ship were not specifically identified. In my opinion, that's how it should be. We know the names of all the men who died and that a few suffered immensely. There's no reason to put additional grief on the families of the few by telling them that no, your son didn't die quickly, he suffered for weeks as he slowly suffocated.

Oh, and it was the Oklahoma which rolled over completely. Also, the Utah capsized. But the Arizona just sank.
posted by daveadams at 7:23 AM on August 16, 2000

Okay, last post about this: Here's the list of the soldiers who died on the Arizona.
posted by daveadams at 7:24 AM on August 16, 2000

I had gotten it wrong; it was indeed the Oklahoma that I was thinking of. The names of dead were not kept secret. All the names of the dead were released. But which ones died rapidly and which ones suffocated slowly in the dark has not been revealed and in my opinion never should be. It must have been hard to be on the outside communicating with the guys inside; what do you say to someone who is certain to die slowly, and nothing at all can be done to save them? (Cutting through the hull was out of the question; it was 12 inch thick steel.) I guess all you can do is keep them company, make sure they know you're there and that you care and that you know who they are. Dying that way is horrible; dying that way and knowing you've been forgotten and no-one cares would be infinitely worse. The final gift you could give a man like that is to keep him company until the end. But that must have been terribly difficult duty for the men on the outside. I don't envy them that job at all.

Returning to the current situation, I think it's too late. I think the sailors in Kursk are all dead. They haven't been hearing any sounds from the boat. Some Russian admiral claimed that this was to be expected, that once a bell started trying to rescue them that they would stay quiet. I think he's full of shit; someone's going bash the hull of the boat with a wrench about once an hour just to let everyone know they're still in there. If they are still in there.

I think hypothermia got them.

[By the way; those who died on Arizona were sailors, not soldiers.]
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:01 AM on August 16, 2000

I think the Russians are covering something up (possibly a reactor accident, they've had many before) which is why they don't want any outside help. Sad that they don't seem care much about a bunch of kids (submarine crews are usually very young) trapped and possibly suffocating in a steel cylinder at the bottom of the ocean. I hope we never treat our own military personel in such a callous manner (though I imagine we probably do; it's easy to let someone die when you're some desk jockey Admiral or General).
posted by Mr. skullhead at 9:11 AM on August 16, 2000

A good page on Russian Northern Fleet SSN accidents can be found here.
posted by Mr. skullhead at 9:20 AM on August 16, 2000

Actually, with the air scrubbers running down (due to low battery), they may suffocate from rebreathing their own waste gases (CO2) long before they run out of O2.
posted by alhawkins at 11:29 AM on August 16, 2000

I dunno about backup batteries on nuclear subs in general, but on the Kursk they seem to have been designed mainly to provide a little bit of light (all of the darkroom-red kind that makes it pretty damn hard to see anyway) and ... not much else. It's as if the only "emergency" the designers ever expected the sub to face was the occasional few hours of downtime when the nuclear generators had to be shut down for some reason or another.

One of the worst things I've heard about this (on radio, no link, sorry) is that they're not even sure who's on board. Appearently, in the Russian Navy members of sub crews tend to just be shuffled into one sub or another arbitrarily when they're in port, without anyone really keeping track. So there's a lot of anxious moms standing on the edge of the sea there waiting for news while their sons are probably 1000 miles away perfectly safe.
posted by aaron at 1:14 PM on August 16, 2000

Actually, as I understand it, with any ship there's a bit of record-keeping involved to figure out who was on board when you left port, and especially so with submarines. Somebody got left behind drunk, another person had a broken leg, a new cook showed up at the last minute ... so there's supposed to be a complete list radioed back by a certain time. But as with any paperwork it can get lost in the shuffle or contain glaring inaccuracies.

For my part, I doubt that success was necessarily in the cards even if we'd been called in as soon as they knew they had an accident. The Oscar class actually has a very advanced escape pod built into the sail, but apparently they weren't able to use it.

And as for covering up accidents ... well, we had a submarine lost a while back that just may have shot itself with one of its own torpedoes during a standard "safety" test. This is dangerous and unforgiving work, folks.
posted by dhartung at 1:59 PM on August 16, 2000

Personally, the thing that bothers me is that various news stories about this suggest that, regardless of whether the Russians did or would ask for help, we apparently weren't doing anything to preposition the necessary assets.

If *I* were the CNO, I'd have called my Russian counterpart on the phone 10 minutes later and said "We're not trying to put you on the spot or anything, but we'll be quietly moving all our gear into position in case you decide you need help."

And then I'd have scrambled everything I had laying around.

posted by baylink at 3:06 PM on August 16, 2000

Baylink: that's just what the Royal Navy was doing. Even now, though, it looks as if it will be too late by the time they and the Norwegians reach the sub.
posted by holgate at 7:14 PM on August 16, 2000

I hate to say this, but scrambling US subs and ships into the Berant sea with nervous, undertrained sailors and unmaintained equipment seems to me to be the epitomy of the bad idea.

Russia, as a nation, is a little on the paranoid side. You try really hard not to upset paranoids with poorly maintained nuclear weapons.
posted by alhawkins at 8:58 PM on August 16, 2000

Just to clarify Al's comments: the "nervous, undertrained sailors and unmaintained equipment" is Russian. Our stuff is much better and the training that our submariners go through before being qualified for sea duty has to be seen to be believed.

US Submariners are all volunteers and are recruited from the rest of the Navy. There are five volunteers for every position to fill, and the training process is one of weeding out 80% of the candidates, so it is extremely brutal. They are the best we have, and they know it and everyone else in the Navy knows it, too. Wearing dolphins on your collar is a major source of pride, because you get awarded them at sea after qualifying through a major series of tests while serving on the sub. Every seaman who is awarded the dolphins has it done so in front of the rest of the crew in a ceremony. It's very emotional and a very proud event, and the seaman receives them directly from the skipper. It is, in a sense, like being decorated.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:45 PM on August 16, 2000

Now I just heard on BBC radio that the Kursk doesn't have an emergency escpate pod, unlike most other subs, because the Russians thought it was going to be the Titanic of the Subs, unsinkable. Ah, directly-contradictory news.
posted by aaron at 10:35 PM on August 16, 2000

they should send in INTERNATIONAL RESQUE! (I hear Thunderbird 4, the little yellow sub, would be perfect for this type of thing)
posted by holloway at 11:45 PM on August 16, 2000

Does anyone know where I can find info about that Russian sub nuclear accident where a crew member had to go into the reactor room to shut it down, knowing he'd get a fatal dose. (No, it wasn't a movie.) As I recall, the sub was off the US east coast, and if he hadn't done it, there would have been a major exposion. Anyone know more?
posted by mike l at 12:47 AM on August 17, 2000

Yeah, Mike, it's in a book I just read. Damned if I can remember the title, though; it's at home; I'll get it tonight for you.

Wear Depends; it will make your bowels turn to water.
posted by baylink at 10:45 AM on August 17, 2000

Hostile Waters, by Peter Huchthausen, Igor Kurdin, and R. Alan White is the book of which you are thinking.

And thanks, Steve, for clarifying what I said.
posted by alhawkins at 8:44 AM on August 18, 2000

Also a must-read for those interested in submarine ops during the cold war: Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew. Being a submariner currently, I'm not allowed to make a comment like "this book is damn accurate." Good book.

posted by flestrin at 8:48 PM on August 18, 2000

Carl, can you tell me which boat you're assigned to? Or if not, at least SSN versus SSBN?

By the way, did I describe the process of getting dolphins correctly? I'm a civilian and never served, but I've studied the military very extensively. And I saw the process on film on the Discovery Channel. It was on an SSN.

I remember seeing film of one of the tests the candidates have to go through, in a special room where the instructures can induce leaks everywhere -- and do. Some sailors handle it well, and some freak and run for the door, and they apparently can never predict ahead of time which will do which. Before the test is over the room is half full of water. It's one of the best ways of filtering out the chaff they have, but it's got to be scary as hell going through that test.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:25 PM on August 18, 2000

I was on OHIO (SSBN-726) Blue Crew for about 3 years. Now I repair submarines in Pearl Harbor.

Subgroup Nine has some interesting stuff about SSBN's.
posted by flestrin at 2:55 PM on August 20, 2000

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