It's been 22 years since Yankee I SSBN K-219 blew up and sank in the Sargasso Sea. Here is what happened.
It was the beginning of October 1986. The latest acheivements of Soviet labor blared from the television screens. Although deep in the background were reports of a Soviet submarine catastrophe that went nearly unnoticed - there were only three lines about it in the newspapers - that was a first. It was the first time that they admitted openly that our warships ran into problems off the coasts of America. And the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev informed Ronald Reagan this fact during a meeting in Reykyavik caused one to think about the seriousness of the accident and the possible consequences that those of us for whom the words and phrases "combat patrol", "thermonuclear warhead", "megaton", "TNT equivilent" were nothing more than professional jargon.
Ten years have passed since then (now its more than 20 years). Mass media has more than once tried to cast light on the causes of the loss of the K-219, meanwhile it is impossible to describe in the newspaper the kind of damage suffered by the submarine and the heroic efforts of the crew to save her. I turn you attention to an article written by the President of the Saint Petersburg Submariner's Club K1R (Ret.) Igor' Kirillovich Kurdin, who for a long time served as the XO of Project 667AU SSBN K-219.
The Motherland Says You Must
SSBN K-219 got underway on patrol according to plan on 4 September, 1986. The commander of the submarine, K2R Igor' Anatol'yevich Britanov was an experienced submariner, having been allowed to independently captain a Yankee I SSBN since 1981. While it was his third patrol as commander and his 13th patrol overall, he didn't command his own ship - the watch on board K-219 was actually the first crew of K-241including 31 officers, 38 warrant officers and 49 seamen as well as some highly qualified specialists. But this time preparations to get underway were confused like never before.
The Cold War continued and our Navy (like the Strategic Rocket Forces) carried the burden of strategic deterrance between the two superpowers. The combat forces of the Soviet Navy were the first response to American deployment of the Pershing missile in Europe and patrol areas by our SSBNs were moved closer to American shores. This was done to make the flight time of our missiles to American territory the same as the flight time of American cruise missiles pointed at our military and civilian facilities.
There was pressure to increase patrols to two or three a year. The resources to support this op tempo were pushed to the limits and maintenance wasn't able to keep up. Submariners were in an even more precarious situation - two or three patrols a year, unused leave, and crew muddles became the norm. Under pressure, the high command had to shut their eyes when crews went to sea on boats other than their "home" boat.
An analysis of the sailing list of the combat patrol crew on K-219 shows that eleven of 31 officers were changed out between preparations for sailing and patrol, including many key officers - XO, Missile Officer, Torpedo Officer and the Radio Officer. There was a similar situation in the Warrant ranks - out of 38 warrant officers, 16 were replaced including the two senior warrants in the weapons department. But I never raised a finger to point blame at the then 19th Division Chief of Staff for Personnel, then Rear Admiral N.N. Malov, since five SSBNs were ordered on patrol at that time.
Why didn't the captain himself refuse to take an unprepared, strange boat to sea with a half-unknown crew? Because they just would have replaced Britanov with someone else. But lets turn to the events of 3 October 1986.
(The families of the crew of K-219 at the pier, Gadzievo, August 1986. Source: submarine.id.ru)
Explosion in the Missile Tube
Thirty days in the the deployment, K-219 maneuvered into her assigned water in the Sargasso Sea. The boat came to periscope depth at 0456 on 3 October for the regular broadcast and after five minutes began to dive to 85 meters. Conditions at that moment were the following: the main power plant was operating in single eschelon mode, the starboard reactor was operating at 30 percent while the port reactor was scrammed with all the dampers and the steam generator and turbine were in a ready state; the starboard turbine was turning the screw while the port shaft was hooked up to the emergency electrogenerator.
At 0514, the Missile Officer and the machinist in the fourth (missile) compartment found a leak from the seal around the number six launcher. Under pressure, the water became a stream. After reporting water in launcher six (the third launcher on the port side), the captain ordered a change of depth to 46 meters for safety at 0525. Pumps were turned on to de-water launcher six. At 0532 a reddish-brown fog of oxidizer began to leak from the seal on launcher six in compartment four. The Missile Officer declared an emergency in the compartment and reported the situation to the conn.
Non-essential crew evacuated the fourth compartment. Nine men remained in the affected compartment. The captain sounded general quarters. Within a minute the crew was performing damage control tasks, including sealing the compartments. The boat came to a safe depth. After five minutes, there was an explosion in launcher six at 0538.
Black smoke appeared in compartment four and then water contaminated with missile fuel began to pour into the compartment from destroyed piping in the upper part of the launcher. The captain immediately gave the order to emergency surface. There were other consequences of the explosion: the atmosphere in the fourth compartment was highly toxic and there was about 4.5 tons of water in the bilge; control was temporarily lost over the environmental conditions of the missiles in the rest of the launchers; other systems were damaged: the 1MC, the missile control communications circuit in the fourth and fifth compartments; the R-651 radio transceiver was partially knocked out, lights and lamps in the compartments were broken and the high pressure air piping was damaged. Indicators on the reactor control panel indicated that the 220 volt DC bus on the port side was knocked out, that the automatic valves feeding water to the steam generators on the port side were open and that the seperate valves on the third loop were open. The control panel of the "Kama" electrical system indicated that insulation resistance in both busses had reached zero. Control ordered atmospheric overpressure in the third and fifth compartments as a precaution.
At 0610, the crew in the fifth and sixth compartments (the auxiliary machinery compartment) were transfered to the eighth compartment (turbine). Seven minutes later came word that the fourth compartment would have to be abandoned because of high temperature and toxic gas. The captain ordered the fifth compartment to be prepared to receive the crew of the fourth. At 0635 the crew of the fourth compartment was withdrawn, leaving behind three people, including the Missile Officer. The port emergency generator was brought on line at the order of the Engineer.
A two man emergency party was sent into the fourth compartment at 0645 to evaluate the situation and render assistance to the crew remaining there. But the team could neither find the Missile Officer nor examine the condition of the sixth missile launcher because of heavy smoke. They did drag the bodies of Seaman I.K.Kharchenko and Seaman N.L.Smaglyuk. The team couldn't turn off any electricity consuming equipment in the fourth compartment nor could they find the source of the fire.
The fourth, fifth and sixth compartments were vented to the atmosphere beginning at 0725. At dawn the XO observed the casualty in launcher six from the top of the sail. The launcher hatch was gone, the front section of the missile was not visible, the hinge of the cover was turned to the side, the outer hull around the launcher was damaged, the hydrodynamic covers of launchers one, three, four, five and seven were torn and hung overboard and the deck in the vicinity of the launcher was deformed. Reddish-brown smoke wisped weakly from launcher six.
At 0831 two more men were again sent into compartment four. Atmospheric contamination in the compartment lessened and visibility improved. The flow of water from the upper part of launcher number six stopped. The investigators found the body of the Missile Officer K3R A.V.Petrachkov without signs of life.
By that time they got the overboard drainage pumps for launcher six working and were able to de-water the bilge in the fourth compartment using the main pumps. After turning on the pump to drain the launcher, water and thick smoke began to pour into the compartment from damaged piping in the upper part of the launchers. The pumps were ordered shut off. They removed the body of the Missile Officer, the gas analysis equipment and emergency protection suits.
At 0925 the port reactor was brought on line. Both steam generators were switched on and the level of power was the following - starboard side 30 percent, port side 50 percent.
The captain decided to give the order to emergency drain the oxidizer and de-water the launcher. He instructed four crew members from engineering and weapons departments to go into the fourth compartment with this in mind. All attempts to begin to de-water the launcher led to additional bursts of oxidizer and water steam into the compartment. The next group started the emergency oxidizer drain pumps. Water under pressure flooded the electrical equipment, including the fourth compartment electrical distribution panel. A short circuit occured and a fire broke out in the fourth compartment. The fire burned out the electrical equipment in the compartment and the pumps stopped. Under orders from control, the emergency party evacuated the fourth compartment.
Under orders from control, at 1754 freon flooded the fourth compartment from the chemical extinguishing system in the third compartment and because of damage to the freon supply piping, the freon gas began to leak into the third compartment and so the supply of freon to the fourth compartment was turned off. Around 1800, the atmosphere in the third compartment began to worsen and the levels of nitric oxide in the air reached 10-40 times acceptable levels. The crew in the third compartment was ordered to don protective gear. Some of the crew retreated to the second compartment. The crew was forced to abandon the communications and encryption stations and as a result, radio communications were lost (no situation reports were sent and instructions and advice from Northern Fleet HQ weren't received).
At 1840, investigators opened the hatches between the fourth and fifth compartments. Encountering smoke which they mistook for fire, they reported the situation to control. Control ordered the fifth compartment flooded with freon from the extinguishing station in compartment six.
At 1930, as a result of the loss of the 380 volt, 50 hertz bus on the starboard side, the starboard reactor scrammed and the reactor moderator lattice failed to go into the lowered position.
Twenty minutes later the reactor compartment reported smoke in the lower level of the sixth compartment to control. The compartment was evacuated, the ventilation between the fifth and sixth compartments were closed and people were transfered to the seventh (reactor control) compartment. Soon it was discovered that the hydralic pressure had fallen to zero. In the interests of maintaining safety in the starboard reactor, specialists from the Machinery Division were sent into the reactor compartment to lower the moderator lattice by hand - Senior Lieutenant N.N.Belikov and Seaman S.A.Preminin. After the Sr.Lt. lost consciousness, Preminin lowered the moderator lattice by himself. At the same time, control ordered the ventilation of compartments eight, nine (turbine) and ten (aft) to the atmosphere and air pressure in those compartments dropped to atmospheric levels, while pressure in compartment seven remained elevated as compared to compartment eight. Because of this, the crew in the eighth compartment couldn't open the hatch to the seventh compartment. Attempts to even the air pressure between the two compartments using equipment in compartment eight, lower level produced thick smoke from the piping. Seaman Preminin was ordered by control to open the exhaust valve to the ventilation, but he couldn't do it. The damage control team in the neighboring compartment couldn't do it either. Seaman Preminin ceased responding to further questions.
Ships from the Soviet Merchant Fleet began to approach the area at 2130, including the Fedor Bredikhin, the Krasnogvardeysk and the Bakaritsa. By 2300 (according to reports from the crew), the atmosphere on board became more toxic, the protective gear had exhausted its resources and the temperature of the bulkhead between compartments three and four was rising. Based on the reports, the captain concluded that there was a fire in compartments four, five and six, that pressure was building in compartment seven and that the possibility of fire in compartments eight, nine and ten couldn't be excluded. Given that the resources for the emergency protective equipment had already been expended and that there was the possibility of one of the missiles exploding in compartmets four or five because of fire, the captain of the submarine decided to shut down the port reactor and to prepare to evacuate the crew to the merchant ships.
The port reactor emergency switch was thrown and the reactor put into cooldown mode. The crew evacuation began, which was finished by one in the morning on the night of the fourth. After the evacuation of the crew, the hatches in the sail and the stern were shut and dogged. Six officers including the captain remained on the bridge.
At 0146, one of the merchant ships sent a message to the headquarters of the Northern Fleet from the captain of K-219: "Fire in all compartments, dead in the water. Six remaining on the boat. Heavy fire in the lower levels of the fourth and fifth compartments. The captain awaits orders to abandon ship." At 0300 came word from the Northern Fleet Command for all officers, except the captain, to abandon ship.
At 2245 a damage control party led by the XO boarded the submarine and investigated compartments one, two and three. These compartments were dry, pressure was normal and the emergency lights were lighted. Besides that the batteries were only partially discharged, the high pressure air was at only 50 percent and there were no hydralics. The pressure hull of the submarine abover the fourth and seventh compartments were burned - its possible that this is from residual heat from the reactor. The pressure hull in the area around other compartments were at air temperature. The bulkhead between compartments three and four up to the upper edge of the intercompartment hatch was cold but above that it was warm.
When the damage control party returned to the forward part of the boat, they leveled out the trim by blowing the forward ballast tank and began to make preparations to tow the submarine. They couldn't investigate the aft end of the submarine since the aft hatch was flooded. With darkness, work on preparations to tow the boat were suspended and the damage control party left the boat.
Loss of the Boat
At dawn on the 5th, the damage control party continued preparations for towing. At 1815 the Krasnogvardeysk began to tow the boat. The submarine continued to settle a bit and the trim began to get out of adjustment. At 0620 on the 6th of October, the towing line snapped and the forward and aft entry hatches went under water. Because of the list, the damage control team couldn't enter the lower hatch on the sail to enter compartment three. The submarine continued to lose seaworthiness and when the boat sank so that the water came up to the deck, the damage control party abandoned ship. At 1100, when the boat sank up to the sail planes, the captain abandoned ship by the order of the Commander of the Navy. On the 6th of October, 1986, at 1102, K-219 sank.
A criminal inquery was launched into the circumstances surrounding the loss of the K-219, an investigation that lasted almost a year. As always, the guilty party turned out to be those people who tried to save men and the ship. The captain, the Politcal Officer and the Engineer were forced out of the service for conduct unbecoming and the crew was dispersed. Out of the entire crew, only Seaman S.A.Preminin received any sort of decoration, the Red Star awarded posthumously. (Later, Preminin was named Hero of the Russian Federation in 1997).
It is necessary to note the heroism of the crew, which maintained normal radiation safety during the accident. The maintenance of the reactor cores and systems up to the moment of the sinking prevented the possibility of a nuclear explosion. The control party and the crew correctly organized damage control efforts. The boat was able to surface. All the compartments were successfully hermetically sealed and the correct air pressure was maintained in compartments three and five. The port reactor was brought up correctly and compartments were investigated and corrective actions taken properly when problems were discovered in the missile launcher. Some of them were remedied. The investigations done allowed evaluation of the situation in the fourth compartment and the ventilation of the fourth, fifth and sixth compartments. As a result of all the measures taken, the situation was temporarily stabilized. Both reactors worked at their ordered power levels, the cooling units worked and the boat had electrical power and a speed of 13 knots when she met the merchant ships. Despite all this the boat's command team did not take all the precautions that they should have to prevent the loss of the boat.
The following was established by the investigative commission:
1. The cause of the accident was a water leak in the number six missile launcher. This led to destruction of the missile airframe and the leak of missile fuel into the launcher. The reason for the leak of water into the launcher in the first place could not be established.
2. The reason why nitric oxide spread from the fourth compartment and contaminated the stern compartments was because investigative teams opened the hatch to the fourth compartment too many times to offer help, to begin venting the air in the compartment, to de-water the launcher and emergency drain the oxidizer. The start up of the pumps and the de-watering of the launcher led to additional discharge of nitric oxide from the launcher into the compartment. It was this that led to the short circuits in distribution panels seven and eight and the fire in the compartment.
3. The reason for the loss of K-219 was uncontrolled flooding of overboard water into the fourth compartment which led to the loss watertight integrity and seaworthiness of the boat. The flooding of the fourth compartment came through the open hatch of launcher six. This led to the flooding of compartments five and six through open ventilation valves between compartments four and five and five and six.