The Russsian Oscar II class submarine the Kursk was on routine exercise when the tragedy struck.
Faulty welding in a dummy torpedo caused its fuel to explode, the resulting damage sent the vessel to the floor of the Barents sea – the impact with the seabed is believed to have provoked a second series of torpedo explosions, the reverberations of which registered on seismographs across Northern Europe.
23 sailors survived the two shocks and gathered in the intact nineth compartment of the vessel, but attempts by a rescue ship to dock onto the Kursk failed and they died from asphyxiation. Some experts believe they survived just a few hours, others believe their ordeal may have lasted several days.
Relatives of the victims were highly critical of the rescue operation – it took some 10 hours for commanders to notice the submarine was missing and launch a rescue mission, while newly elected President Vladimir Putin had a public relations disaster, firstly by being filmed holidaying on the Black Sea as the catastrophe unfolded, then by refusing offers of help from well-equipped British and Norwegian teams until it was too late.
The wreckage of the Kursk was raised from the ocean floor by Dutch salvage companies more than a year after the sinking.
An investigation would reveal the accident might have been prevented had basic safety controls been in place – for example, welding on the Kursk’s ten year old weaponary was never checked because it was mistakenly believed that dummy torpedoes presented no safety risk.