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'A Time to Die': The Kursk Disaster

Cover of 'A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy' (Crown Publishing: ISBN 0609610007)
Cover of 'A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy' (Crown Publishing: ISBN 0609610007)

During naval exercises in the frigid Barents Sea on Aug. 12, 2000, two explosions ripped through the Russian submarine Kursk, and the mammoth ship quickly sank to the bottom in more than 350 feet of water.

British journalist Robert Moore -- an award-winning broadcaster who covered the collapse of the former Soviet Union for the ITN television network -- tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the disaster was an accident waiting to happen. In his new book, A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy, Moore details the poor decisions and political bungling that led to the death of 118 sailors.

The Kursk was not just any Russian submarine. Fast, stealthy and technologically complex, the Kursk was the pride of the cash-starved post-Soviet sea force. Today's rusting Russian navy is a shadow of its former glory when the Soviet Union was a true superpower. For example, the men who served aboard the Kursk sometimes went months without getting a paycheck.

The explosions that doomed the Kursk were most likely caused by the use of hydrogen peroxide as a torpedo propellant -- a chemical so volatile that Britain's Royal Navy banned its use decades earlier. The explosions in the forward torpedo room killed almost all the crew instantly, but 23 sailors found refuge in the very last compartment. However, the batteries of the Russian mini-sub sent to save them didn't run long enough for sustained rescue operations.

With time running out, Russian military leaders kept a tight lid of secrecy over the incident, and only accepted foreign help days later. Moore believes the chance of rescuing the trapped sailors was minimized by the Russians waiting so long to accept help.

"It was really a case of political paralysis," Moore tells Siegel.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.