A small village in Russia called Skornyakovo has a monument that commemorates the extraordinary deed of an ordinary Russian seaman. The inscription reads: “To Russian Seaman Sergei Preminin, who prevented the world from a nuclear catastrophe.” Sergei Preminin was born on October 18, 1965. His father was an electrician and his mother worked at the flax factory. They had three sons. Sergei left school in the town of Krasavino and decided to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps. Like Nikolai he graduated from the ship-repair college in Vologda Oblast.
On October 23, 1984, Sergei was called up for military service in the navy. He served on the K219 , a Soviet strategic Yankee Class Nuclear Submarine, which had been commissioned in 1971. The K219 was 129.8 metres long, weighed 9300 tonnes submerged, was powered by two nuclear reactors, had a speed of 26 knots and carried 120 men.
During the Cold War, US subs were at constant play in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with Soviet and Chinese “boomers,” as the missile subs are called. With the aid of underwater sonar detection nets such as the US SOSUS array, US subs would be deployed to intercept Soviet or Chinese submarines as they were detected.
Once the sub acquires the submarine, it is then tracked, hopefully through the remainder of its mission.
The objective was to “tail” the boomer until such time as it returned home, or in the event of war, moved near the surface and prepared to launch its submarine- launched ballistic missiles at the US or its allies.
In October 1986, the K219 headed to sea with orders to carry out a routine combat patrol off the eastern US coast. The captain of the K219 was Igor Britanov, a well-respected commander.
The K219 was able to slip past the US SOSUS nets by tailing a freighter, and was only picked up in the mid-Atlantic ocean. The US sent the attack submarine Augusta to trail the K219 . The Augusta was half the size of the K219 and was relying on sonar signals to avoid discovery.
Guessing he was being followed, Captain Britanov issued orders to carry out a 360˚ avoidance manoeuvre known as the “Crazy Ivan.” The K219 ‘s turn caused violent turbulence and the Augusta lost its vital sonar signal. Suddenly, the two submarines were dangerously close. The Augusta ‘s skipper realised that the Russians were directly below them. Within a split second the submarines collided and narrowly avoided a second hit.
The K219 sustained damage. Water streamed through a tiny crack in the missile hatch cover, producing deadly fumes and brown flames. Then Britanov, desperately aware that his vessel was sinking, did the unthinkable and dived to build up speed and extinguish the fire, and then surfaced in US waters.
The crew of the Augusta were shocked when they realised what was happening. They knew that Russian submarines are forbidden to surface in foreign waters, and the Augusta ‘s captain became convinced that the Russians were about to launch their ballistic missiles when they saw the missile doors open on the K219 .
The K219 was carrying 16 missiles, each with 32 megaton nuclear warheads.
Just to put things in perspective, the fission bomb detonated over Hiroshima had an explosive blast equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT. A one megaton hydrogen bomb, hypothetically detonated on the earth’s surface, has about 80 times the blast power of that 1945 explosion. Thus, each missile on the K219 had a bomb that was 2560 times more powerful than the Hiroshima fission bomb—and there were 16 of them.
So you can understand the concern on the Augusta and within the US Defence Command, with the K219 on the surface in attack mode with its missile doors open! n Officially, the highest force readiness alert for the US was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. On October 22, 1962, DEFCON 3 status was reached, and this was upgraded to DEFCON 2 the next day as the stand-off continued, with the Strategic Air Command prepping their nuclear warheads scattered across Europe and the US to strike targets within Russia.
The only other occasion DEFCON 2 was reached was during the K219 crisis.
With the K219 on the surface, its submariners were desperately trying to fight the fires on board. They finally put out the fire but the heat had disabled the safety systems. In Compartment 7, the subatomic heart of the K219 , a chain fission reaction had begun. If left unchecked, this would lead to a meltdown and a probable launch of the payload of missiles. This would have wiped out every major city on the east coast of the United States, and would have undoubtedly started World War III.
With the remote reactor shutdown disabled, the only way to avoid meltdown was to lower the reactor rods by hand. Apprentice Sergei Preminin and Lieutenant Belikov were sent in to lower the rods manually.
They had only four oxygen canisters, each lasting 20 minutes. They entered the reactor chamber and were confronted by 65 o C heat and deadly orange gases.
They began lowering the rods with a crude ratchet. They lowered three of the four rods safely before Preminin collapsed.
Belikov carried him to the adjacent apartment and returned to finish lowering the final rod. But Belikov lost consciousness soon after. Preminin finally regained consciousness and returned to the reactor, hauling Belikov out.
He returned with only minutes of oxygen left and, on point of complete exhaustion, he lowered the final reactor rod. Just then lethal gas escaped and sealed shut the escape hatch for Preminin.
All Captain Britanov could hear were Preminin’s last sobbing breaths.
Belikov survived, but suffered severe radiation exposure.
Sergei was just 21 years old, yet he sacrificed his life to save the world from what would have been a thermonuclear holocaust. Sergei was entombed within the K219 when it sank in the 6000- metre-deep Hatteras Abyss while being towed by a Russian freighter back to Russia.
Just days later, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met at the crucial Reykjavik summit to agree on nuclear disarmament.