Author discusses his book about raising the Kursk
Author brings life to the 'salvage of the century'
He details the year-long struggle to raise the Russian submarine Kursk.
By GORDON JACKSON, The Times-Union
ST. MARYS - Dutch author Hans Offringa was skeptical four years ago when he was asked to write a book about what is described as the largest underwater salvage operation in history.
The author, who was a guest speaker at the St. Marys Submarine Museum this week, told the audience of about 50 people he was asked to chronicle the Dutch company Mammoet Smit International's year-long effort to raise the Russian submarine Kursk from the Bering Sea. The Kursk sank on Aug. 12, 2000, killing all 118 sailors on board.
He told company officials he would author the book, but he wasn't interested in writing a technical manual on the challenges of raising the 509-foot, 9,000-ton boat from 350 feet beneath the surface.
He wanted interviews with Russian government officials, family members of the sailors, the designer of the submarine and those involved with the initial rescue attempt after a volatile mix of propellants used to power the boat's torpedoes exploded.
The company and the Russian government agreed to his conditions and the result was Offringa's book, Raising the Kursk, which was published in 2003. The book, which has been sold in Europe since it was published, is only on sale in the United States at the submarine museum and a St. Marys bookstore, Once Upon a Bookseller. It can also be purchased online.
"It's been called the salvage of the century," Offringa told the audience during an hour-long presentation. "The Russian people were very hospitable and open about what happened."
The Dutch company got involved after the Russian government realized it didn't have the technical expertise to salvage the vessel, he said.
The company told the Russian government it needed information they were initially reluctant to reveal in order to raise the boat. Without information about the boat's design, the company would not know where to attach cables to haul the vessel to the surface.
The nose of the boat was heavily damaged and there were concerns any attempt to bring the Kursk to the surface could split it in half and damage the very expensive salvage equipment, he said. So, the contractor decided to cut nearly 10 percent off the front of the submarine. The company used heavy cutting wires powered by hydraulic cylinders that would pull the wires back and forth in a sawing motion.
Nearly 120 miles of cable were attached in 26 different parts of the inner hull by a crew of divers from Scotland who spent 28 days in a pressurized chamber so they could work in the deep water in six-hour shifts.
After the divers completed their work, the sunken boat was slowly winched to the surface, attached to a barge and shipped to a Russian port. Crews then attached the boat to giant inflatable pontoons in the port to lift the vessel high enough to bring it to a dry dock, where the sailors' remains were removed and the Kursk was dismantled.
The Russian government returned later to salvage the nose of the submarine, Offringa said.
John Crouse, the museum curator and a former submariner, said the accident has created more cooperation among different nations with submarines. The countries are now designing adapter plates that will allow them to gain underwater access from one boat to another for underwater rescues.
Offringa said some of the Russian sailors who were located near the back of the boat, behind the two nuclear reactors, "may have suffered terribly" before they died of suffocation and exposure to the cold temperatures.
Sheila McNeill, former national president of the Navy League, said the presentation reminded her of the risk those serving on submarines experience every day they are at sea.
McNeill said she wanted to hear the presentation because the St. Marys Submarine Museum is the only place in the nation she knows of with artifacts from the Kursk on public display.