On February 24, 1972, a fire onboard the Soviet nuclear submarine “K-19” took the lives of 29 sailors. 12 crew members survived and were saved after spending 23 days in an isolated section of the submarine. The tragedy was classified until 1980s.
The sailors nicknamed K-19 “Hiroshima” because it had a very high breakdown rate. The fire in 1972 was not the first of the tragic accidents with the submarine.
The first wreck of K-19 occurred on July 4, 1961, during manoeuvres. The submarine had been on the way to the North Atlantic when an alarm went off signaling that the coolant system of the nuclear reactor had broken down. The heat increased to a dangerous rate and the captain, Nikolay Zateev, ordered a build of the emergency coolant system. Eliminating the damage, 42 crewmembers were affected by a high dose of radiation, and in four hours they showed symptoms of radiation sickness.
The antenna of the main radio transmitter appeared to be damaged, too, so the captain could not report the accident to the navy base. Using the emergency transmitter, he managed to contact two vessels, C-270 and C-159, sailing near the place of the wreckage, and they headed towards the sub in distress immediately. One of the ships contacted the Naval Staff, and four destroyers were dispatched to save the crew of K-19. On July 4, the evacuation started. C-159 was ready to torpedo the submarine down, but the destroyers tugged K-19 and returned it to the base.
87 hours after the accident, the sailors were hospitalized. Some of them died in a week. The government decorated all the crewmembers of K-19 with orders. It was the first wreckage in the history of the Soviet nuclear fleet – and the first time a major nuclear disaster was averted.
On February 24, 1972, K-19, under the command of Captain Victor Kulibaba, was returning from patrol in the Atlantic. A fire started half an hour before breaking the surface. The crewmembers not participating in firefighting were evacuated, and when the fire was put down, 12 sailors found themselves isolated in the 10th section of the submarine, between two sections filled with carbonyl. The other crewmembers managed to convey air to the section through the ventilation system. The air was saturated with smoke and steam, so the isolated sailors made an improvised filter out of a blanket. They had neither food nor fresh water, and the section was meant for four, not twelve, people.
On March 8, a rescue squad arrived to the scene of the accident. In ten days, all the crewmembers were saved. All the sailors were decorated with orders, but the ceremony was classified – and so was the accident itself.