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Submarine Disasters: Rare, Tragic

The disappearance this month of an Argentine navy submarine with 44 crew aboard showed the perils that submariners face. Although submarine disasters are rare, here are some of the worst of recent decades.

Kursk catastrophe

On August 12, 2000, the Russian guided missile submarine K-141 Kursk sank to the floor of Barents Sea after two explosions in its bow. All 118 men aboard the nuclear-powered sub died. After recovering the remains of the dead from the sub, officials determined that 23 crew members, including the Kursk’s commander, had survived the initial accident before suffocating.

Sinking of the K-8

A fire that broke out aboard the Soviet attack submarine K-8 on April 8, 1970, disabled the nuclear-powered vessel in the Bay of Biscay, forcing the crew to abandon ship. The crew boarded the sub again after a rescue vessel arrived. But the sub sank while under tow in heavy seas, taking 52 submariners with it.

The Scorpion vanishes

In May 1968, the U.S. Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine Scorpion disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean with 99 men aboard. The wreckage was found in October about 400 miles (644 kilometers) southwest of the Azores islands, more than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) below the surface. There have been several theories about the disaster: It may have involved the accidental release of a torpedo that circled back and hit the Scorpion, an explosion of the sub’s huge battery, or even a collision with a Soviet sub.

The sinking of K-129

The K-129, a nuclear-powered Soviet ballistic missile submarine, sank on March 8, 1968, in the Pacific Ocean, taking all 98 crewmen with it. The Soviet navy failed to locate the vessel. A U.S. Navy submarine found it northwest of the Hawaiian island of Oahu at a depth of about 16,000 feet (4,900 meters). A deep-sea drill ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, was able to salvage part of the sub in a secret operation. The remains of six Soviet crewmen found in the sub were buried at sea.

The Thresher implosion

On April 10, 1963, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine Thresher was lost with all 129 men aboard. The sub broke apart in 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) of water during deep-dive trials southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. According to U.S. military reviews of the accident, the most likely explanation is that a pipe joint in an engine room seawater system gave way, shorting out electronics and triggering a shutdown of the vessel’s reactor that left it without enough power to stop itself from sinking.

K-19: nuclear accident

The K-19, one of the first two Soviet nuclear ballistic missile submarines, had been plagued by breakdowns and accidents before its launch. During its first voyage, on July 4, 1961, the sub suffered a complete loss of coolant to its reactor off the southeast coast of Greenland. The vessel’s engineering crew sacrificed their lives to jury-rig an emergency coolant system. Twenty-two of the 139 men aboard died of radiation exposure. The remaining 117 suffered varying degrees of radiation illness. The accident was depicted in the 2002 movie K-19: The Widowmaker.

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