August: The heroic and tragic month for the Russian Navy

PRAVDA.Ru is the first of the Russian media outlets to publish the details of the breakdown, which happened on board the Soviet nuclear sub 22 years ago. August is both a heroic and tragic month for Russian submariners. The first Soviet nuclear sub K-3 was built in the city of Severodvinsk 45 years ago, so, today is the official day of the Russian nuclear fleet.

However, there is another anniversary coming up – the day, when the nuclear cruiser Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. The Hero of the Soviet Union, rear-admiral Vadim Berezovsky said that August 12th could be considered the day, when the Russian nuclear fleet died: it is unreal to wait for its revival. There is another tragic event, about which PRAVDA.Ru decided to report. The breakdown on board a nuclear submarine happened exactly 22 years ago, that event was classified as secret for many years.

Kursk file has been closed. Today we are opening another tragic page in the history of the Soviet and Russian nuclear submarines.

August of 1980 was the time, when the whole Soviet Union was rejoicing about the success of the Soviet athletes at the Olympic Games,which Moscow hosted at that time. Needless to mention that such bad news like a breakdown on board a nuclear cruiser was not a good thing to expose to the public eye.

St.Petersburg journalist Vladislav Samborsky described the tragic event in detail. Nuclear submarine K-122 (659T project) was added to the nuclear arsenal of the Russian Navy in July of 1962. After it came back from a regular active service, the submarine was put in a dock for repairs, the crew went on vacation, but an unexpected order changed all that very quickly: it was ordered to prepare the sub for travelling into the sea. Everything was prepared in a hurry, which had its consequences afterwards. K-122 went into the sea with the new command in July of 1980. The commander of the sub was G.Sizov, the chief assistant - lieutenant commander G.Garusov. After the forced crossing of the Korean Gulf, K-122 took the place of another submarine, K-151, which was going back to the base. K-122 went to its patrolling area around Okinava island.

The ignition of the hydroacoustic station on August 19 was like an overture to the tragedy. The central compartments of the sub were filled with smoke. Individual protective devices were carried over there from rear compartments, and stayed there afterwards. The situation with fire was taken under the strict control, though. The ignition was liquidated very soon, the command decided to ventilate the sub from under the water.

The tragedy started on August 21. The crew were practicing their “struggle for life” classes, which were over with unsatisfactory marks. Everyone had supper in the evening, and then it was decided to continue with the training. When they were practicing the order to shift the overload from the turbogenerator of one board to the other, a flap was heard in the seventh compartment, puffs of smoke started filling the compartment up. A flame of fire about five meters long came out of the turbogenerator. This compartment was adjacent to the control console of the main powerplant, there were eleven people in there. It was vital to take urgent measures, but the command was lingering. A submariner died over smoke poisoning. The central command post finally allowed the evacuation of the crew from the emergency compartment to the adjacent one. It took eight minutes to make such an important decision, and the fire reached regeneration cartridges and moved over to the fuel of the emergency diesel generator. The compartment was doomed, freon could not cope with the fire alone. Smoke was gradually coming into the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth compartments. The emergency system of reactors was activated and the submarine stopped. There was a serious threat of radioactive danger.

The commander made a decision to go up to the surface. When it happened, it was decided to evacuate the crew of the eighth compartment onto the superstructure, but it was not successful due to the excessive pressure inside the compartment. The strongest submariner tried to remove the rack gearing with a hammer, but he soon fell down dead, having breathed in too much of smoke.

The same attempts were made in the ninth compartment, there were nine people in there. The gas pollution in the sub was increasing, but there was a lack of individual protection means, since the devices were carried over to the central compartment. Warrant officer Belevtsev managed to open the front lids of the torpedo tube in absolute darkness, without any protection device. This allowed to smooth the pressure out, but the warrant officer died over smoke poisoning. The hatch of the eighth compartment went finally open, 48 people went onto the deck, two of them were unconscious, nine people were already dead, five were missing.

The situation with the sub was going worse and worse, there was no electric power, so it was impossible to report about it to the command. Mobile radio stations were helpless, the crew used signal flares. The English vessel Harry came up to the submarine soon, which was a great help to K-122. The English helped the Soviet submariners with food and water, they also helped to transmit a SOS message to Moscow and to Vladivostok. Then the English ship went away, having reported the whereabouts of the Soviet sub to Americans and Japanese.

The fire on the sub was going on, so the crew had two major goals to pursue: not to let the submarine sink and to secure the nuclear plants. The commander offered the only correct decision for that moment: to descend to the reactor compartment from the superstructure and to stop the reactor manually. It was very hard work, but they eventually succeeded.

Japanese helicopters appeared in the sky at daybreak, the silhouette of American aircraft could be seen on the horizon too, a Japanese destroyer came into the picture soon after. It seemed that the submarine could be captured. The Meridian training ship came up to the submarine, which took the bodies of nine dead submariners on its board, as well as the majority of the crew.

Those, who remained on the deck of the submarine, started searching for their missing friends, they were doing their best to extinguish the fire as well.

The submarine was taken to Pavlovsky Harbor several days afterwards. Three other nuclear submarines of the Northern Navy died under the similar circumstances: K-8 in 1970, K-219 in 1986, K-278 in 1989.

K-122 lost 15 people in total, one of them died over a heart attack at home. The special committee at first determined that the crew was guilty of the fire on board the submarine, but then it was found out that the reason of the ignition was a constructive flaw, which was found on all other submarines of the same project.

On the photo: K-122 submarine. The picture was taken from a foreign ship near Okinava island

Vitaly Bratkov PRAVDA.Ru Severodvinsk

Translated by Dmitry Sudakov