It was a nuclear submariner’s worst nightmare.
An explosion had destroyed one of the Russian sub’s nuclear-tipped missiles. A fire inside the sub was raging out of control.
The coolant systems that kept the sub’s two nuclear reactors from overheating were inoperative, and the fire had destroyed the automatic controls to shut them down.
Two crewmen volunteered to take on the dangerous task of entering the overheated and radioactive reactor compartment to prevent a nuclear explosion by manually shutting down the two power plants. One of them died when he was trapped after saving his shipmate and returning into the compartment to finish the job.
Eleven years after the sinking of the K-219 in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles from Bermuda, two retired U.S. military officers hope to turn the story of Engineer-Seaman Sergei Preminin into a symbol of post-Cold War, Russian-American friendship. They have nominated the dead Soviet sailor for a U.S. medal for heroism for preventing a nuclear reactor explosion that could have poisoned much of the U.S. and Canadian east coast.
The incident involving the sub’s two reactors did not become public until late last year, when a book written by the boat’s former executive officer and a retired U.S. Navy officer penetrated a cloud of secrecy from both U.S. and Soviet navies.
“The Cold War is over now,” said retired Capt. Peter Huchthausen, who learned much of the story after his three-year tour in Moscow as U.S. naval attache during 1987-90. “If we are to value the peace we’ve earned, let it be in recognition of the price paid … the Russians paid, too.”
In their book, “Hostile Waters,” Huchthausen and retired Soviet Capt. Igor Kurdin recount the three-day struggle by the sub’s crew after the explosion and fire on Oct. 6, 1986.
Two members of the submarine’s engineering team volunteered to enter the reactor vessel compartment and lower control rods into the two VM-4 reactors despite compartment temperatures over 150 degrees, the presence of toxic nitric acid fumes and a shortage of oxygen canisters for their survival gear.
Senior Lt. Nikolai Belikov, one of the reactor control officers, entered the reactor compartment but ran out of oxygen after turning just one of the four rod assemblies on the first reactor. He managed to climb out of the compartment and briefly collapsed with heat exhaustion.
At that point Preminin, a 21-year-old seaman on his first submarine cruise, donned an anti-radiation suit and oxygen mask and entered the inferno with Belikov.
The two men took turns moving the hand crank that lowered the other three control rod assemblies into the first reactor, finally shutting it down. The room temperature had risen to more than 180 degrees.
When they emerged into the adjoining compartment, Belikov collapsed again. An officer told the sub’s commander, Capt. Igor Britanov, the two were too exhausted to continue and there were insufficient oxygen supplies left. Preminin then slowly got to his feet and said, “I’ll go.”
Taking the last two oxygen containers, Preminin staggered through the hatch into the reactor room and managed to crank down the last four control assemblies.
But he was trapped in the reactor vessel compartment by a buildup in air pressure that jammed the hatches.
Of the 119 crewmen aboard the K-219, three others besides Preminin were killed on the sub, two crewmen later died of health complications, and several dozen more still suffer from the effects of the poisonous fumes, Huchthausen said.
When retired U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Julian Hatch read of the sinking several months ago, he concluded that Preminin’s heroism transcended the Cold War rivalry in which the sub operated.
“What that kid did was heroic enough, but what he prevented was far more,” Hatch said in an interview from his Naples, Fla., home. “If (accounts of Preminin’s actions are) accurate, it looks like he saved the whole East Coast of the United States.”
The K-219 sank two days after the reactors had been shut down.
Hatch and Huchthausen last month submitted a formal nomination for Preminin to posthumously receive the U.S. Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal, the service’s top citation for extraordinary acts of heroism in the saving of life at sea.
Both the Soviet and Russian governments have previously honored Preminin, Huchthausen said. In 1995, the Russian Navy dedicated a memorial to the young submariner at Gadzhievo, the northern fleet base from which K-219 left on its final voyage. In November, officials presented the “Hero of Russia” award, signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, to the sailor’s parents.
Hatch says he would like Preminin’s parents to receive the formal thanks of the American people for his valor.
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