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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviets Unprepared in 1989 Sinking

Trapped in a prone nuclear submarine at the bottom of the Barents Sea, the crew of the submarine Kursk will find little solace in the story of Russia?s last major submarine disaster.

In April 1989, the Soviet sub Komsomolets caught fire and sank. Forty-two of the 69-man crew died, most of them drowning in the icy seas off Norway?s northern coast because they did not know how to operate their own emergency equipment.

It took a Soviet rescue ship seven hours to reach the craft after the fire broke out, and Soviet-era navy standing orders forbade the crew from making an international SOS distress call in case foreign rescuers spied on the state-of-the-art sub.

The crew of the Komsomolets didn?t know how to use their own emergency equipment to escape.

An official report into the accident, published in 1998, found that the crew of the Komsomolets had barely been trained in emergency drills.

Navy officers at the time accused the vessel?s designers of paying little heed to safety.

The sinking of the Komsomolets played out like a disaster movie.

The vessel surfaced after the fire was discovered at 11 a.m., but the flames had not been isolated by closing bulkhead doors, and air from ballast tanks fanned the flames.

Several hours into the emergency, it became clear the craft would go under and the evacuation alarm was sounded. But crew rushing onto the deck assumed lifeboats were waiting for them and had not donned protective clothing and lifejackets.

One of the two life rafts could not be deployed because crew on the listing submarine?s deck had no idea how to open the self-inflating device.

Reports said most crew members who did not fit on the one working raft perished in the frigid Arctic water.

Six men, including the captain, were left on board as the submarine started sinking. Five of them struggled through the submarine?s narrow corridors ? now practically vertical holes ? and made their way to an emergency escape capsule.

But no one knew how to detach it from the submarine.

As the vessel plunged steadily to a depth of 1,500 meters, air pressure inside the capsule built up to a crushing two atmospheres, killing three including the captain.

According to one account, published in the newspaper Vek several years after the sinking, the crewmen became frantic.

"Sailor Chernikov was reading aloud the instructions on detaching the capsule. It was hanging in a frame, and the sailor read it like a prayer: ?Pull away, open, detach,?" said the account, based on a survivor?s statements.

The impact of the submarine hitting the sea bed detached the capsule, sending the two remaining crewmen to the surface. One was killed when the capsule rapidly decompressed, throwing him out and causing his lungs to burst.

Sailor Viktor Slusarenko was the capsule?s only survivor.

The wreck of the Mike-class Komsomolets, along with its two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, was never recovered from the sea bed.