How Scots played key role in raising the Kursk

ON 20 AUGUST, 2000, ten days after a Russian nuclear submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea with 118 men on board, Moscow made the official announcement the world had feared: "The crew of the Kursk has perished."

It extinguished any hope the men might somehow have survived inside the 505ft hull after it had been rocked by two explosions while on exercise.

Rescue attempts by teams of Russians and a British submarine from Norway had failed, but a pair of Norwegian divers finally managed to open the Kursk’s escape hatch to find it filled with water.

As Russia grieved, the president, Vladimir Putin, was left to organise what would be one of the trickiest salvage operations in history to return the dead sailors to their families and bring the stricken submarine to the surface for examination.

Already smarting from the heavy criticism he received for waiting four days before asking for foreign help, Mr Putin knew failure to bring home the Kursk was unthinkable. He also faced the dilemma of having to allow foreign salvage teams access to a top-secret nuclear submarine.

A new book by Aberdeenshire-based Lipstick Publishing tells the remarkable inside story of how an international consortium, including the Subsea 7 diving team from Aberdeen, was assembled to salvage the Kursk.

Using dramatic pictures, maps and documents - including the farewell letter of the Kursk’s captain, Lieutenant Dmitri Koleshnikov - it charts how the team led by Mammoet from Holland lifted the sub off the seabed 14 months after the disaster.

"Technically very complex, politically and militarily sensitive, with totally unpredictable weather circumstances on location, and with two very different cultures that have to work together intensively for months," is how the book’s Dutch author, Hans Offringa, describes the task.

The book, which comes with a DVD, also features interviews with those involved in the operation, including Scots diver Jimmy Irvine and Wally Wallace, the superintendent of diving with Subsea 7.

Negotiations between Mammoet and the Russian government were concluded in May 2001, when a 34 million contract was signed.

Mammoet was to design and build lifting platforms while the fellow Dutch firm Smit took care of diving, cutting and sawing of holes on the Kursk and attaching the grippers to the side of the vessel, assisted by Russian engineers.

About 1,000 people worked on the multi-national team during preparations and that figure eventually rose to 2,000.

A 427ft steel pontoon had 26 holes in it drilled to match those made in the Kursk so that grippers could be lowered on to the sub. Some 5,000 tonnes of steel equipment were added to the platform.

The first task for the divers was to cut off the nose of the Kursk, 360ft down, and drill the 26 holes under high pressure.

The divers were aware of the 118 corpses lying inside, but fortunately did not come across any of them where they were working.

The 75 divers from Scotland, England, Russia, Norway and Australia - two inside and one in the diving bell at a time - worked for six-hour stretches.

All of them lived in saturation chambers on the ship Mayo, equivalent to the diving pressure outside, for 23 days.

Although the divers were cooped up in a Big Brother-type situation, the arrangement saved valuable time that would be lost if the workers went through decompression after every six-hour shift.

There were lighter moments amid the grim operation. Using a mixture of oxygen and helium, the divers had voices like Mickey Mouse.

After their 23-day shift, they spent a further five days in decompression before coming out to be replaced by other crews.

"The most difficult part from the divers’ point of view was the tedious opening up of the outer skin of the submarine," said Mr Irvine, who was born in the Shetland Islands.

"There were so many points underneath that we could not get to and all the equipment underneath the skin. There were so many things obstructing us getting to the pressurised hub and it was a slow, tedious job."

Turbulent seas threatened to cast adrift the lifting pontoon on the Giant 4, which was attached to the Kursk, leaving the salvage operation balancing on a knife edge at the mercy of the elements.

"Now that the Kursk is already attached to the Giant 4 on four points, there is no turning back. It’s now or never," Offringa wrote. "There is a real chance the Giant 4 will be beaten off its anchors. If that happens then the salvage attempt will be over.

"Then the salvagers will have no other option left: they will have to cut the lines. Everyone waits stoically. Nobody can do anything."

However, the storm subsided and the other grips were put in place. "After a couple of hours, the Giant 4 sinks a little bit into the sea. Air bubbles are seen on the surface. The Kursk is loose! The carefully thought-out system works in reality."

Mr Wallace described the critical operation: "We were expecting the lift to take a long time and for it to put up much more of fight a than it did.

"We had all sorts of contingencies in place with wires under the rim of it to break the suction. Once we got it connected, she gave up with very little fight.

"We put the tension back on the end of the submarine and she lifted out of the mud nicely. It came out of the mud within five or six hours of starting and she was free. The actual lift was a non-event. It went very, very smoothly."

Offringa described the moment of glory: "Ten hours later, they feel the Kursk touch the Giant 4. Two gigantic masses bump against each other a couple of times before the Kursk sits tightly against the saddles.

"The relief is gigantic and there is time for a brief celebration. The cook on board has specially baked a cake for the occasion. The crew cannot enjoy it for long because Murmansk is not yet in sight and the wind is rising again."

Back in Murmansk, the Russian authorities began the grim task of removing the 118 bodies.