Saturday, October 25, 2008

Submarine Disaster of the Day: The Chaotic Rescue of S-178

Memorial to Project 613B SS-178. Photo:

The Pacific Fleet Project 613B medium diesel submarine S-178 was lost on 21 October, 1981 as a result of a collision with the refrigerated cargo ship Refrigerator-13. The boat was returning after two days at sea with K3R V.A. Marago at the helm.

S-178 received permission to enter Zolotoy Rog harbor at 1930. RFS-13 didn't notice S-178's running lights against the backdrop of the city of Vladivostok and other ships in the roadstead until too late. The commander managed to give the order, "On the starboard side! Signalman, illuminate the oncoming vessel!", but it was already too late.

Refrigerator-13 struck S-178 on the port side around compartment number six at 1945. The compartment was flooded in about 15 to 20 seconds. The boat developed a severe list and people standing in the sail flew into the water. About 40 seconds after the collision, S-178, having taken on about 130 tons of water, lost seaworthiness and sank in 31 meters of water.

The memorial to the crew of S-178 was established in the Mariner's cemetery by submariners. It was opened in 1982, a year to the day of the loss of the boat...The monument conssists of the metallic structure of a type S submarine, set into a granite block. The front part of the sail is directed north. On the face of the memorial is a granite tablet, upon which is engraved, "Pacific Fleet sailors of SS S-178, lost at sea 21 October in the Sea of Japan"...There are 16 submariners buried in the cemetery, 10 more buried in their home regions and the bodies of six were never found.

There are more details about the sinking, including the rescue efforts which seem to have a lot in common with the chaos involved with the Kursk rescue a generation later:

At 2015, the Pacific Fleet duty officer declared an emergency rescue situation and called upon the search and rescue detachment based in Vladivostok. Submarine S-179, base minesweeper BT-284 and the salvage vessel Zhiguli departed the range where they had been conducting training seven minutes later and proceded to the scene of the accident. The salvage vessel Mashuk, a few small boats and the Project 940 (Lenok class) rescue submarine BS-486 Komsomolets Uzbekistan, which was preparing to enter the yards, arrived from Vladivostok. (Note: BS-486 also played a key role two years later in the recovery of the "black box" from the shot down KAL-007).

Caption: India-class rescue submarine BS-486, Golden Horn Bay, Vladivostok, 1999. Source:

At 2100, RFS-13 found a rescue buoy. The rescuers arrived in the following order:
- 2150 the Mashuk and the Project 365 fire-fighting boat PZhK-43,
- 2239 Zhiguli got underway from Preobrazheniya Bay,
- 0120 22 Oct BS-486 and the Project 522 dive tender VM-110

22 October

From 1055 on 22 Oct the floating cranes Bogatyr'-2 and Chernomorets-13 arrived on the scene to place roadstead equipment to assist the rescue ships. The chief of staff of the Pacific Fleet Vice Admiral R.A.Golosov was on board the Mashuk to direct the rescue effort.

At 0030 on 22 October, comms were established with the sunken submarine through the rescue buoy. The XO reported the situation about the condition of the crew, the loss of comms with the stern and the lack of individual escape gear. On the basis of this report, HQ calculated the time the crew had left.

There was no food, water or warm clothing. The temperature in the compartment fell to 12 degrees celcius. There were no instruments to measure the amount of toxic gases or oxygen in the air. The level of CO2 was 2.7 percent, despite the fact that two compartments were burning five O2 candles apiece. The reserve of 60 regeneration banks were enough to support life for 60 hours. A person can live 72 hours at an atmospheric pressure of 2.7kg/cm2. An independent ascent would be accompanied by the bends and a longer stay would surely be fatal.

There are tablets hanging in the compartments with instructions for swimming to the surface. There aren't any instructions for how to save oneself after a long stay in a compartment under high pressure. Meanwhile, the submariners know that the longer that they remain under pressure, the less chance there is to save their lives.

Because bad weather was expected in the next two days, headquarters decided not to save the submariners by raising the aft end of the boat and they decided instead to use the rescue submarine, without a glance at the current weather conditions.


On 22 October at 0845, BS-486, in a peacetime first, began rescuing people from the sunken sub.

At 0906, she let out her underwater anchor 15 meters from where S-178 sank so that divers could search the area. But it took three hours for the divers to find S-178(!!!!!!!?????). They inspected the stern for an hour and rapped on the hull to try to establish comms with compartment seven. There was no return signal. They attached a buoy to mark the stern section and departed.

At 1300, the rescue sub began to maneuver to a distance not more than 30 meters from the bow of the sunken boat. (...)

At the same time, conditions in the area deteriorated greatly: a 30 knot north-west wind whipped up and the sea state grew to four. Some of the equipment was not functional and there was a complete lack of search and rescue gear to find an unknown object on the sea floor. The shallow depth in rough seas limited the ability for rescuers to maneuver. BS-486 tried to surface and dive three times. The worst part was losing the radio bouy attached to S-178, which cut off comms at 1410 on 22 October.

It turned out that valuable time was wasted. There was a lack of equipment and the rescue boat spent several hours maneuvering without finding the bow of the sunken boat. There was no real assistance offered.

Kapitan-Lieutenant S.M.Kubynin decided to take a group up to the surface because of the worsening situation. They prepared escape trunk number three. When the pressure was equalized, K2R B.Ya.Karavekov gave the signal. Exiting the lock, the communications officer Kapitan-Lieutenant S.N.Ivanov released the beacon buoy, but he got the buoy lines mixed up and the buoy did not go to the surface.

At 1545 Kap-Lt Ivanov and Sr. Seaman Mal’tsev made a free ascent to the surface. The submariners were found and were put into a decompression chamber 12 minutes later to compensate for the effects of breathing pressurized air for so long.

BS-486 continued to maneuver in the area around the bow of the sunken submarine, but she just couldn’t find it.

The submariners trapped without comms with the surface continued there efforts to save themselves. At 1830, Kap-Lts Kubynin and Zybin sent a second group through escape trunk number four.

Sr. Seaman Anan’yev, Seaman Pashpev and Seaman Khafizov disappeared without a trace: they weren’t found on the surface because it was dark and there was no organized search of the area around the lost submarine. It is possible that a key role in their fate was played by the maneuvering rescue submarine

At 2015, divers from the rescue submarine found the sunken submarine and established comms by tapping back and forth on the hull with the submariners.

BS-486 anchored using her bow anchor and began to reposition using the maneuvering motor to take up the necessary position. After each maneuver, divers corrected her position. Finally the seventh trio of divers to work secured an exit tube to a diving platform to the upper starboard rescue hatch (hatch number three). There they found the failed marker buoy, freed it and checked the connection to the hull and floated it to the surface.

BS-486 used around 17 hours to maneuver into position to offer practical help to the trapped sailors.

23 October

Divers from the rescue submarine began to work at 0303. They loaded six IDA-59 rescue re-breathers into hatch number three, two diving suits and 10 ISP-60 diving tanks, rescue lamps, food and after that the rescue divers exited into the rescue submarine.

By 0400 the gear was taken into the first compartment. Despite the instructions received from the rescuers, Kap-Lt. S.M.Kubynin decided with the Brigade Chief of Staff to send a third group through the air lock.

It seems that the decision was correct: V.Ya.Karavekov was demoralized, the diver’s skills weren’t what they should be and there was no medical help.

At 0554, the third group began its ascent from escape trunk three. Right at that moment, a diver was approaching to deliver gear and saw the opening hatch. The CHENG Yamalov emerged. The diver assisted him in leaving the apparatus and tried to guide him to the entry on the rescue submarine, but the submariner wouldn’t let the diver hook him up to the submarine, tearing off the harness and swimming to the surface. The diver detached from the hull. While he fell a meter or two to the bottom, Seaman Mikushin emerged from the hatch. There was nothing else for the diver to except to report the exit of the sailors to the rescue submarine. K2R B.Ya.Karavekov remained in the escape trunk.

Divers inspected escape trunk number three, found nothing in the eight meter long tube and left more gear and instructions for its use.

While all this was going on, communication between the trapped crew and the divers was poor. There was no standardized set of signals for submarine rescue – they were made up on the spot. A lot of time was wasted in the escape trunks. Additionally, the divers were working a long time in the depths and were freezing. They had to work in 60 to 90 minute shifts. New divers received a pass down on board the rescue submarine, planned their dives and had to establish comms with the sunken boat. There were intervals of time when there were no rescue divers outside the escape trunk.

During underwater operations the divers had their first practical use of much of their equipment in a real live rescue situation. For example, the device built to transfer equipment in to the stricken submarine turned out to be cumbersome and inconvenient.

Around 1000, the submariners closed the forward escape trunk and drained it. The body of a dead officer was inside.

Deciding not to no longer test fate, Kap-Lts S.Kubynin and V.Zybin organized preparations to exit to the surface through a flooded compartment. The submariners took all their gear into compartment two, including the oxygen candles. They unblocked the hatch to escape trunk three. They donned the ISP-60s. There weren’t enough diving suits so they gave them to the crewmembers who would exit last. Eighteen men prepared to exit.

At 1515 they signaled the divers, “Wait for us by the exit of the escape trunk. We are ready to exit.” The compartment began to flood. There was a danger that the flooding could affect the list and trim, causing torpedoes to shift off their skids. Because of this danger, the flooding was deliberate and slow through the forward port upper hatch. The excess air pressure generated was bled off through the sea cock on the depth gauge.

At 1915 they began their exit. The first to exit collided with a foreign object in the escape trunk and had to return to the compartment. The way remained blocked.

After removing the body of V.Ya.Karavekov, the escape trunk still wasn’t cleared of the equipment left there by the rescue divers. Divers placed loaded dive suits and IDAs in escape trunk four.

The weapons officer Kap-Lt V.Zybin entered this complicated situation in escape trunk three. He succeeded in clearing the escape trunk of unnecessary gear. Then, signaling to his comrades about the clear path, he got the attention of the divers and made his way through the rescue apparatus to the rescue submarine.

By 2030 the last one left on the boat was the XO Kap-Lt. S.Kubynin. He exited the escape trunk and, failing to meet the divers, he ended up on the sail of the submarine and lost consciousness. A minute later, he was brought to the surface and was brought aboard a rescue cutter.

Sixteen of the eighteen men exiting the boat through the flooded apartment survived. Seaman P.Kireyev lost consciousness and died in the compartment. Seaman Len’shin wasn’t found by the rescue cutters on the surface or the divers, who searched the escape trunk and the bottom around the sunken boat.

Six men transferred to the rescue submarine. They were transferred to a pressure chamber on board BS-486. They were diagnosed with oxygen poisoning and hypothermia as a result of a long time in the water. Their condition was generally better than their comrades.

The sailors exiting the stricken submarine by means of free ascent were placed in a pressure chamber on the salvage vessel Mashuk. They all suffered from severe decompression sickness. They developed single and double pneumonia and four of them suffered pressure related damage to their lungs. One of them required surgical intervention.

Doctors worked for more than two days in the pressure chamber. All the pressure chambers had to be linked into one system in order to allow enough doctors and specialists to work. After decompression, the stricken sailors were transported to the hospital. All twenty people who exited the sunken submarine under their own power survived and healed. Only one seaman was pronounced as unfit for further submarine service.


Work on raising S-178 began on 24 October. Pontoons were affixed to the deck at a depth of 15 meters and she was transferred to Patrokl Bay, which was shielded from the wind, and placed on the bottom at a depth of 18 meters.

There, divers recovered the bodies of the victims through hatches and the hole in the sixth compartment.

After that, the boat was surfaced with the help of pontoon and a floating crane. The compartments were dried, except for the damaged compartments and the diesels.

On 15 November, the sunken submarine was made seaworthy again.

After offloading the torpedoes in the first compartment, S-178 was carried to the Dal’zavod Shipyard and put into dry dock at 2000, 17 November. Refurbishing the boat was found to be pointless.

The commander of S-178, K3R V.A.Marango and the XO of RFS-13 V.F.Kurdyukov were sentenced to ten years in prison.

After the loss of the S-178, a joint decision between the Navy and industry was made to place bright orange running lights on the submarines, warning all ships that a submarine was running on the surface.


asdfsdf said...

Because bad weather was expected in the next two days, headquarters decided not to save the submariners by raising the aft end of the boat and they decided instead to use the rescue submarine, without a glance at the current weather conditions.

{Because bad weather...without a glance at the current weather conditions.}

At 0906, she let out her underwater anchor 15 meters from where S-178 sank so that divers could search the area. But it took three hours for the divers to find S-178(!!!!!!!?????).
That I find easy to believe, especially if there was a current. How far did the sub drift from where it sank, how accurate were the positions, and if there was a storm going on the visibility could have been 5 meters of lower. Using 1960s era diving gear(did they even have SCUBA?) in a current with low visibility and poorly trained inexperienced soviet divers I could easily see a search taking 3 hours. Remember the divers had 2 fight the current and stay within their dive tables. What was the depth of the bottom of that location?

Russian Navy Blog said...

Apparently the depth was approximately 30 meters.

Yeah, I guess you are right.

asdfsdf said...

30 meters is on the deep end for conventional SCUBA, past 40 and your using multiple tanks with different mixtures of gas(ex. Helium-oxygen instead of nitrogen-oxygen for deep, Because helium ongasses and offgasses faster than nitrogen and thus reduces the risk of the bends and decompression times. Argon as a separate gas for your mandatory drysuit, because helium is MUCH less insulating than nitrogen and the water temperature is very cold at those depths.) I think water transfers heat to and from your body 25x as fast as air, so a one degree difference on land seems much colder underwater. The divers could have easily became chilled and hypothermic, burning rapidly through their air supply to keep warm. This is assuming they are using self contained tanks, as air supply is no issue with a line to the surface/submarine. However, I wouldnt want to conduct SAR trailing a heavy umbilical behind me.

It is also important to remember the thermocline. This is a depth at which warm surface water does NOT mix with colder bottom water. The temperature differences are usually around 5 degrees F and changes within a matter of inches. It looks like intense heat distortions when you look through it, so much that when you have your head above and your feet below your eyes will constantly struggle and go blurry trying to focus looking down. Thermoclines are usually near the bottom, and I think that the really bad ones commonly start around 20 meters down, but I'm no expert in that regard.

Also, due to the way water adsorbs the spectrum, by 20m that red star on the conning tower already looks black, and by 30m everything would be shades of blue.

Obviously not all of these possibilities happened, but it certainly would have been tough on those divers.

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