E R N I E ' S H O U S E O F W H O O P A S S
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By 1.00 p.m. on August 12, there were 23 men in the 9th compartment. By that time, they were the only ones remaining alive. Most probably, it was Lieutenant-Commander Dmitry Kolesnikov who took the overall command upon himself. Why most probably? Because not one of the two notes that were found declares this specifically. But from the papers that were found in Kolesnikov’s pocket, it is possible to presume that he had taken the command upon himself. Besides the note, he had in his pocket a list of all 23 men that were still alive then. There was a tick mark beside each name.
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In all likelihood, from time to time, Kolesnikov held a roll call of the men with him. He did this at least twice at 1.00 p.m. and 3.00 p.m.
What was the morale of the men in the 9th compartment? Since they were professionals, they understood full well the tragedy of the situation. However, there was no panic. Now it is possible to say this with complete confidence. An exhaustive answer to this question was given by the doctors that examined the bodies that were brought to the surface.
It is common knowledge that the human body has certain reserves of glycogen (sugar and glucose). The largest amount of glycogen is to be found in the liver and muscles. There is less glycogen in the blood. Glycogen is a powerful source of energy a kind of strategic reserve for man in case of stress.
Examination of the bodies that were retrieved from the 9th compartment revealed that there was no sugar and no glucose in their liver and muscles. That could mean only one thing that they had experienced tremendous stress. And it could not have been otherwise: what could a man experience when the submarine shudders from two explosions one after another, after which even the emergency lights go out and the sub slams into the bottom of the sea and water starts rushing in over the bulkheads? Who could take all this calmly? No one! It is clear that all the survivors experienced tremendous nervous stress.
But the doctors also found something else. The blood in the bodies of the retrieved seamen contained glycogen, moreover, in amounts higher than normal! This means that the reserves of glycogen were not exhausted completely, i.e., there was stress but only for a brief period, and then the men calmed down. If the survivors had panicked, their organisms would have "gobbled up" the final reserves of glycogen, but that had not happened.
Therefore, one may consider the calm and business-like atmosphere in the 9th compartment as a proven fact. But what did the submariners do? First of all, they increased pressure inside the compartment to prevent water from rushing in. The second note that was found somewhat later than the first indicates that the pressure in the compartment was raised to 0.6 kilogrammes per square centimetre. The deep-sea divers found the same reading on the 9th compartment’s manometer. There was water in the compartment but not more than 15-20 centimetres high.
There was no emergency lighting. The storage batteries of the Kursk were located in the bilge of the 1st compartment, and this is why after the explosion, all talk about power supply was out of the question. However, the compartment contained the standard number of flashlights that the submariners used.
Soon it became cold and all the men had to put on warmer suits with lining. The unrolled fire hose clearly indicates that the men were ready in case of fire. And the hooked up intercom telephone is a sign that the men tried to phone to all the compartments to determine if there were any survivors there. It is quite possible that immediately after the explosions, that is how they made contact with the men in the 6th, 7th and 8th compartments.
Judging by everything, the submariners were getting ready to leave the compartment and to swim to the surface. All the necessary measures were taken for this purpose, and the breathing equipment was prepared.
In the opinion of naval physiologists, coming to the surface from a depth of 100 metres makes it 100% certain that a person will experience the bends and lung injuries. But in such extreme conditions, the question stands quite bluntly: to live or to die, and that explains why such accompanying risks are taken as something that is inevitable.
But in order to get to the surface, the submariners must first leave the ship. However, the men in the 9th compartment were unable to do that. All their numerous attempts to open the emergency escape hatch failed. The seamen encountered the same problem as did the pilots of the rescue mini-subs that tried to attach themselves to the escape hatch mirror.
Something had happened with the emergency escape hatch, but what? One thing must be made clear. Up to the present day, the precise reason why the emergency escape hatch did not work has not been established fully. There is an opinion that the rescue modules were unable to attach themselves because the mirror had cracked. However, many specialists do not believe in that. A cracked mirror could have hindered a rescue module from attaching itself, but this could in no way prevent men inside the compartment from coming out.
Specialists maintain that the steel that the mirror is made of simply could not crack and that is why most likely the transfer skirt of the hatch that rigidly unites the outer hull and the pressure hull was simply bent as a result of the explosion. And that is why the rescue modules were unable to attach themselves to the escape hatch and the men were unable to get out.
[Editor's note... a "mirror" is a highly polished super flat metal ring around the emergency hatch. The rescue sub has a "mirror" as well...the two super flat surfaces fit together to guarantee an airtight seal during the docking process so the doors of both vessels can be opened without catastrophic flooding under the enormous undersea pressures.]
That it became impossible to get out of the compartment did, of course, complicate the already grave situation that the 23 men found themselves in. But by far, not everything was lost! Most likely, the words that Kolesnikov wrote "No need to despair!" refer to that time. In these words the commander expressed his own attitude to survivability: "yes, we are unable to get out of the ship, but there is hope that we will be found and rescued, and that is why there is no need to despair, we must fight for our lives, we must win time!" In all likelihood, he addressed such words to his comrades.
And Kolesnikov and the rest of the submariners knew only too well that after their ship had failed to answer radio queries, the fleet has already sounded the alarm and the search for them was already going on. And that was why it was necessary to do everything possible for the compartment to survive, to save one’s own life and wait, wait, wait. The fact that Kolesnikov was writing in the dark after 15 hours also lends support to this version. No one knew how long they would be in the compartment and that is why they had to economise on the batteries of their flashlights.
Now is the time to remember the numerous statements made by naval commanders about how long the men in the 9th compartment could last out. Most often the figure of ten days was given. Today’s analysis of the situation in the 9th compartment also confirms this period: they were able and ready to last out these same ten days. However, this did not happen. Why?
Because something horrible happened - something that dashed all the thoughts and hopes of millions of people. That brings us directly to the mystery of what actually happened in the 9th compartment.
When the medical experts began examining the bodies that were retrieved by the deep-sea divers, they immediately noticed that by their outward appearance, the submariners could be divided into two categories.
The first category included those bodies that were absolutely uninjured. All of them could be easily identified. Their faces and hands had a reddish colour that is typical of carbon monoxide poisoning. Typical crackling could be heard by pressing down on the chest. The medical term for this phenomenon is crepitation. There were signs of subcutaneous emphysema a clear indication a man lived and died in an atmosphere of high pressure and that his body was saturated with nitrogen. A foamy liquid dribbled out of the nostrils also a clear indication of being under high pressure for a long time. Such bodies were in the majority. In the opinion of the doctors, the onset of death was in the region of 7p.m. to 8 p.m. on August 12.
The second category consisted of bodies with thermal and chemical burns. There were at least three such bodies. The face of one of the bodies had been virtually hewn off. Only tattered muscle tissue remained on the skull. Another body was totally devoid of the abdominal wall, but the internal organs were intact. The men could not burn like that due to a fire. This was an obvious case of alkali burns, moreover, very intensive and brief.
So what actually happened in the 9th compartment at about 7 p.m. on August 12? This is what happened.
By the evening, there was an obvious lack of oxygen in the compartment. It was decided to charge the double-decker regeneration unit with fresh regeneration plates. This job was given to three submariners. They approached the regeneration unit with a can of special fluid and started recharging. And that is when the irretrievable happened. One of the three dropped the regeneration plates and possibly the whole can into the water that was mixed with oil. One can only suppose why this happened. Most likely this was due to fatigue from the previous hours, the cramped quarters and insufficient lighting. Then came the explosion…
By the nature of the burns, one may assume that one of the seamen tried to cover the can filled with regeneration fluid with his body and take the entire force of the explosion upon himself. Doubtless, that was a heroic act that alas remained unacknowledged. But even that desperate, fatal lunge could no longer change anything…
The men next to the regeneration unit were killed instantaneously as a result of the explosion. The rest lived a little longer. The explosion immediately consumed all the oxygen, discharging tremendous volumes of carbon monoxide. No-one expected the explosion, and that is why none of the submariners were wearing the breathing equipment they were dutifully preserving in case they managed to get out of the submarine. That is why for all of them it was sufficient to take one or two inhalations to lose consciousness. That was the end.
The men fell into the water so as never to get up again. Everything happened so swiftly that hardly any of those in the 9th compartment actually realized what had taken place. But there was no large fire. The explosion consumed all the oxygen so there was simply nothing that could burn any more. Water continued to seep into the compartment, and by the time the Norwegian divers were able to open the emergency escape hatch, it was entirely flooded except for a small air cushion below the top ceiling with an oxygen content of 7%. As is known, people can breathe air containing at least 12% oxygen, below which, they lose consciousness.
Upon learning about the mystery of what had happened in the 9th compartment, I could hardly come to my senses for several days. It was a tremendous pity that a ridiculous accident, in an instant, took the 23 young lives - that a rescue operation that had every chance to be successful came to naught.
If it were only possible to turn back the clock and to change something in the past! Alas, this is not in our power. Time marches on monotonously and does not recognise the subjective mood in the past. Nonetheless, we must once again bow our heads before the captives of the 9th compartment - those brave men that stood at their battle stations to their last breath and accepted death when salvation seemed to be so near.
Vladimir Shigin is a staff writer with the Russian-language Marine Journal.