Sinking of the Russian Nuclear Sub 'Komsomolets'

K-278 Komsomolets was the only Project 685 Плавник (Plavnik, meaning "fin", also known by its NATO reporting name of "Mike"-class) nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy.

The boat sank in 1989 and is currently resting on the floor of the Barents Sea with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads still on board.

On 7 April 1989, while under the command of Captain 1st Rank Evgeny Vanin and running submerged at a depth of 335 metres (1,099 ft) about 180 kilometres (100 nmi) southwest of Bear Island (Norway), fire broke out in the aft compartment, and even though watertight doors were shut, the resulting fire spread through bulkhead cable penetrations. The reactor scrammed and propulsion was lost. Electrical problems spread as cables burned through, and control of the boat was threatened. An emergency ballast tank blow was performed and the submarine surfaced eleven minutes after the fire began. Distress calls were made, and most of the crew abandoned ship.

The fire continued to burn, fed by the compressed air system. Several hours after the boat surfaced, it sank again in 1,680 metres (5,510 ft) of water. The commanding officer and four others who were still on board entered the escape capsule and ejected it. Only one of the five to reach the surface survived.

Rescue aircraft arrived quickly and dropped small rafts, but many men had already died from hypothermia in the 2 °C (36 °F) water of the Barents Sea. The floating fish factory B-64/10 Aleksey Khlobystov (Алексей Хлобыстов) arrived 81 minutes after K-278 sank, and took aboard 25 survivors and 5 fatalities. In total, 42 men died in the accident.

Inside the sinking Komsomolets six men are still alive. Captain Vanin guides them to their last hope, the escape capsule. American submariners would not have this option. They close the hatch. Vanin counts . . . himself, Yudin, Slyusarenko, Krasnobayev, Chernikov . . . one is missing . . . Ispenkov. They hear a knocking, try to open the hatch, but it is too late. The outer compartment's walls collapse. Komsomolets goes down 300, 500, 1,000 feet. At 1,300 feet the scale no longer records, but the sub continues down. The men desperately try to release the capsule but without success. Another explosion rocks the ship, and suddenly the escape capsule breaks free--flying to the surface. Once there, the hatch blows off. But only Slyusarenko is able to get out, as the capsule floods in the rough seas. Vanin, Yudin, Krasnobayev, and Chernikov sink in the capsule to rejoin Komsomolets more than 5,000 feet below.

Shortly after 6:00 p.m. a fishing boat arrives and picks up 30 crewmen. Of the 69 crewmembers, 39 are already dead. Molchanov is recovered and feels fine, but the smoke inhaled while keeping the deck log in the control room and the water's chill have taken their toll. He and two more will soon die. Doctor Zayats and Warrant Officer Slyusarenko are among the survivors.

The boat managed to surface eleven minutes after discovery of the fire, but the rupture in the main compressed air system fed the fire further. The crew fought the fire for several hours before the submarine flooded and sank. As she sank, the commanding officer and four others entered the escape pod, but it was partially flooded and filled with toxic gas, and only one of the five survived the ascent to the surface. Small rafts were dropped from the rescue aircraft, but there were not enough for the 50 men in the water. Of the 69 crew members, 42 were killed in the accident, most dying in the water of hypothermia [at 36° F the water was cold enough to kill them in 15 minutes].