When the Russian submarine Kursk sank in 2000, it was a conspiracy theorist's dream come true. Immediately, conflicting stories started pouring in from official sources, ranging from a US submarine ramming the Kursk to a potential Russia-China torpedo sales plot. The Russian Kursk submarine disaster captured the attention of millions, and the families of the crew were left struggling to find out what really happened to their loved ones. As if living on a submarine isn't scary enough, imagine being aboard as explosions rocketed you to the sea floor.
Some of the conspiracy theories that developed are actually quite plausible, while others require a level of skepticism that would make even Descartes blush. It would be years before the fate of the Kursk was fully understood, and, even now, there is still some controversy surrounding it. So what really happened to the Kursk?
The Kursk submarine was a BIG, burly piece of Russian engineering. Specifically, the Kursk was an Oscar II (Project 949A Antey), a nuclear-powered, cruise-missile submarine designed to go after NATO aircraft carrier groups. The Oscar IIs have a double hull separated by 3.5 mm, and are divided into 10 different compartments. The sail has a reinforced double cover designed to be able to break through the Arctic ice cap. The sub is about 154 m long, 10 m longer than the previous Oscars.
11 of these subs were made between 1985 and 1999, and eight of them are still in service. These big boys were considered pretty unsinkable, so when the Kursk when down in a training exercise, it really caught people off guard, not unlike the Titanic's 'unsinkable' sinking a century before.
At 11:28 am on August 12, 2000, while doing training exercises in the Barents Sea, an explosion rocked the Kursk. The sub sank to the sea bed, 354 ft below the surface, resting at the bottom of the freezing-cold, watery depths. Just a little more than two minutes after the initial explosion, a second, more massive one took place inside the Kursk. What was supposed to be an exercise wherein the Kursk fired two dummy torpedoes at the Russian battle cruiser, the Pyotr Velikiy, turned into the world watching in disbelief to see if any members of the 118-member crew had survived. However, it would be several hours before anyone even knew anything was wrong.
The first indication that something was wrong was when the Kursk failed to check in that evening. At that point, the Russians sent out rescue ships, which located the accident area the next morning on August 13. All of the initial rescue attempts failed, however, due to a combination of poor weather, the angle of the Kursk, and a lack of appropriate rescue equipment.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway all offered to assist with rescue operations, but Russia refused assistance. Four days after the initial disaster, they changed their minds and agreed to international help.
As all this was going down, newly elected President Putin was vacationing in a resort on the Black Sea. Instead of cutting his holiday short and returning to Moscow, however, he stayed on holiday for four more days. While he claims that it wouldn't have made a difference in the handling of the incident - since he is connected to the military wherever he goes - in retrospect he thinks it would have been better to return to Moscow for public relations. He admitted as much in an interview with Larry King.