August, black month for Russian Navy
August is a black month for the Russian Navy. On August 7, 2005 bathyscaphe "AS-28" was nearly killed off the coast of Kamchatka. On August 12, 2000 submarine Kursk perished, on August 30, 2003 submarine K-159 sank in the Barents Sea. Thirty-three years ago, on August 21, 1980, a tragedy broke out on an underwater atomic submarine K-122 that was part of the Pacific Fleet.
At the time the country was euphoric about the successful performance of Soviet athletes at the Moscow Olympics. It was only natural that the accident at the Soviet nuclear submarine that killed fourteen sailors was not publicized.
Nuclear submarine K-122 project 659T became part of the Soviet Pacific Fleet in July of 1962, and in the beginning of its autonomous military service spent a great deal of time in the oceans. In the early summer of 1980, after returning from regular military service, it was put into the factory for repairs. The entire full-time crew was on vacation, someone was preparing to enter the academy, and someone was waiting for appointment to a new position. Suddenly there was an odd order for the submariners to urgently prepare the ship to sail. The crew was gathered in a rush, the submarine was loaded in a rush. This rush could not but bring about bad consequences later on.
In July of 1980, K-122 was virtually pushed away from the pier on active duty with a new commander of the ship, a competent and experienced submariner, but the one who was not familiar with the project and the crew. A fire at the hydro-acoustic station on August 19 seemed like an "overture" to the tragedy. The central compartments filled with smoke, and personal protection devices were brought to the rear compartment for respiratory protection of the crew and left there. However, the situation was immediately taken under control, the fire was quickly extinguished, and it was decided not to float to the surface but ventilate the boat with a compressor under water.
The main tragedy began on August 21. During the transfer of the load from one side of the turbine to the other, a bang was heard in the 7th compartment followed by thick smoke. When the shield of the turbo generator was opened, a jet flame five meters long and a meter wide broke out of it. The compartment began filling with smoke. The emergency bay was next to the remote control of the main power plant where eleven people were located.
Emergency measures had to be taken and Freon had to be sent into the burning compartment, but the commander hesitated. Finally the central post allowed the evacuation of personnel from the compartment and control panel to the adjacent compartment. It took eight minutes to make this decision. During this time, the fire spilt on diesel fuel of the emergency diesel generator. The compartment was doomed.
Freon could not deal with the fire. A strong flow of air blew at the flames and metal began to melt.
The power was lost, and soon the reactor protection was activated. Because of the loss of power the compensating grating remained in an intermediate position, and there was a threat of a radioactive hazard. "Chernobyl" could have occurred six years earlier.
The gasses throughout the boat due to the increasing fire in the emergency bay were getting stronger, and the rear compartment did not have enough individual respiratory protection equipment for everybody as on August 19 during practice exercises they were transferred to the central compartments.
The situation on the boat deteriorated every minute. All compartments were full of gas except for the nose one, almost all personal protective equipment was used, there was no light, and because of the heat there was a fire in the 3rd compartment. The incident should have been reported to the command, but it was impossible due to the lack of power on the boat. Low-power portable radios could not solve the communication problem, and flares were used.
Soon the distressed submarine was approached by a British gas carrier "Harry." Containers of drinking water, food and medicines were brought to the submarine in distress. The British sent an urgent report on the incident to the Soviet embassy in Japan. From there, the message was forwarded to Moscow and Vladivostok. Believing that its mission was done, the British boat left after informing the Americans and Japanese of the coordinates of the Soviet submarine
The fire on the boat continued. Fortunately, the crew managed to manually lower the compensating grating of the atomic reactors. "Pacific Chernobyl" was prevented.
At dawn on August 22 Japanese airplanes and helicopters appeared in the sky, an American assault helicopter carrier loomed on the horizon, and a Japanese destroyer showed up thirty miles away. There was a threat of seizure of the submarine. Part of the crew was armed with service weapons, and combat torpedoes were prepared for liquidation.
Nine hours after the transmission of a radio message Soviet training ship "Meridian" with Vladivostok Maritime Academy cadets onboard approached the place of the accident. The bodies of nine dead submariners were passed to them, and the greater part of the crew boarded the ship. Only those needed for damage control remained on board the K-122.
On the third day the naval depot ship "Borodino" arrived. Members of the crew moved from "Meridian" to "Borodino." The boat was provided with high pressure air, the plant employees helped launch the diesel generator, supply power to the fan and turn on the emergency lights for the front compartments. Then a tug boat pulled the submarine towards the base.
After the "debriefing" the blame was put solely on the crew. Many naval commanders and officers from the boat were removed from their positions. Only the family of one of the warrant officers who displayed heroism while combatting the accident and died was awarded the Order of the Red Star. However, it did not spare the submarine's widow from spending a year visiting offices of various officials. She repeatedly asked bureaucrats to change the statement "died of suffocation" to "killed in the line of duty" to receive a pension, but to no avail.
Three nuclear boats of the Northern Fleet, K-8 in 1970, K-219 in 1986, K-278 in 1989 perished under similar circumstances. The crews of these three nuclear-powered ships were treated with much more respect than the crew of the K-122 that, incidentally, did not lose the battleship but delivered her to the base.
The new boat mechanic, as if trying to "rehabilitate" the crew insisted on a re-investigation of the accident. Very unusual for the Soviet era, an authoritative commission appointed to reinvestigate came to the conclusion that the cause of the fire was the structural weaknesses inherent in all the boats of the project. This meant that the entire division of nuclear submarines of this project should have been retired. Then it was decided that it would be easier to fire the mechanic who was too smart for his own good and exclude him from the ranks of the Communist Party.