At the height of the Cold War, the world stood on the brink of disaster without even realizing it. It was July 4, 1961, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the crew of the Soviet submarine K-19, risking their lives, saved not only their vessel, but the entire planet. Alexander Zapustalov, a survivor of that fateful incident, shares his story as one of the few who have survived to this day.
In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was rapidly developing its nuclear submarine fleet to equal its American counterparts. The USSR’s first nuclear submarine was the K-19, a response to the growing military power of the United States. However, due to the rush to commission it, certain precautions were overlooked.
Zapustalov recalls how rushed and behind schedule the crew was during that fateful mission. As they sailed through neutral waters near Jan Mayen Island in the Atlantic Ocean, NATO ships were piled up there. The plan was to go under the polar ice as an experiment, but fortunately this opportunity did not present itself.
It was then that a welding accident caused a spark to ignite one of the reactor’s water pipes, which was supposed to be covered with asbestos. Micro cracks appeared in the pipe, and as the pressure increased, it eventually burst. This happened around 4 a.m., causing a breach in the reactor’s cooling system. Water from the primary circuit leaked into the compartment and, unable to cool the reactor rods, the temperature began to rise rapidly.
After only 20 minutes, the crew had to be brought to the surface. Had they been trapped under a multi-meter layer of ice, the K-19 would have been unable to surface, leading to imminent disaster. The water flooding the compartment was highly radioactive and the air was ionized, causing small discharges similar to lightning. The crew was not protected from gamma radiation by anything but thin steel bulkheads. Seeking some protection from the invisible threat of death, all the unoccupied crew members gathered on the deck under the open northern sky.
Remembering what happened, Zapustalov is visibly worried. He goes through stacks of photographs, remembering the K-19 crew before the tragedy. On that terrible morning, taking pictures was the last thing on their minds. Their first priority was to save the submarine from a nuclear explosion that would reveal their secret to the Americans. With two medium-range nuclear missiles on board, the detonation would have been catastrophic. It is unlikely that NATO forces would have wasted time trying to figure out the cause when a nuclear mushroom cloud would have appeared right in front of them. The response would have been swift and devastating, leading to a full-scale nuclear exchange between the superpowers.
The story of K-19 and her crew should never be forgotten. Their courage and sacrifice prevented a global catastrophe at a time when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their peak. Their actions serve as a reminder of the danger posed by nuclear weapons and the importance of diplomacy and peaceful resolution of crisis situations.