What Was the Kursk Disaster?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2019
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The Kursk disaster was an incident in 2000 in which the Russian submarine Kursk went down with all hands. The 118 sailors and officers aboard died, most of them within minutes of the incident. Many news outlets were captivated by the Kursk disaster and subsequent rescue attempts, and a number of conspiracy theories swirl around the chain of events which led the Kursk to sink.

This Oscar II Class submarine was commissioned in 1994. On 12 August 2000, the Kursk sailed to the Barents Sea along with another submarine for an exercise in which the Kursk was scheduled to fire dummy torpedoes. Everything on the Kursk appeared to be in working order, including its two nuclear reactors, but when the torpedo was prepared for launch, an explosion occurred.

Although the torpedo room in the Kursk could be sealed with the use of a watertight door, it was usually left open. This proved deadly when the explosion occurred, with the open door allowing the explosion to rip through several compartments. Several sailors were killed instantly, and many others were severely injured. Instead of surfacing, the Kursk sank, perhaps due to confusion on board which made it difficult to implement orders.


When the Kursk hit the sea floor, another series of explosions ripped through the submarine. These explosions were strong enough to register on seismographs in Europe, and they appear to have been caused by the detonation of additional torpedoes which were jostled when the submarine hit the bottom of the ocean, at 350 feet (108 meters).

At least 23 people survived, gathering in a single compartment. The names of the survivors were logged by an officer, who also jotted down notes which grew increasingly despairing as the sub's life support systems failed. Initially, the sailors believed that they would be rescued, but this was not the case. The Russian government first announced that the submarine was experiencing “technical difficulties,” later admitting that the Kursk had sunk and accepting assistance from the British and Norwegian governments when they offered to travel to the site of the sinking for a rescue operation.

It wasn't until 20 August that rescue ships reached the scene, and at this point, all hands on board had died. Evidence seemed to indicate that the surviving sailors might have accidentally started a fire which killed several sailors outright and caused others to suffocate as the fire consumed the available oxygen in the submarine. Over one year later, the Kursk was salvaged by the Dutch, and the bodies of the sailors were laid to rest in Russia.

The events of the Kursk disaster were intriguing to the media since they provided a clear illustration of the Russian government's preference for secrecy. Some people suggested that if the Russians had asked for help on 12 August, it might have been possible to reach the site earlier, and some of the sailors could have been rescued. The United States was also irritated when its offer of assistance was snubbed.

Conspiracy theorists have claimed that the Kursk actually sunk as a result of a collision with another submarine, with the USS Memphis often being fingered as the culprit. Others have said that the ship might have been struck by a torpedo. However, inspection of the ship after the salvage operation confirmed that the Kursk sank as the result of an accidental explosion, which, while tragic, was far from sinister.


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