"Picture yourself: You're in this boat on the bottom of the ocean," said Clayton Decker, who has been there, with the oxygen running out, watching the taut faces of friends who know they might die. Some just give up and crawl into their bunks. "You just go to sleep, and it's an easy death. You kind of go into a coma. They say you don't even get dizzy."
Decker lived through it 56 years ago, in a crippled U.S. submarine off China during World War II. Men anguished over a brutal choice: try an improbable escape from 180 feet down or surrender to a more peaceful death.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 7, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Diving bell--An Aug. 15 graphic on options for rescuing the crew of the sunken Russian submarine Kursk misidentified the U.S. Navy diving bell used in a 1939 rescue. The correct name is the McCann rescue chamber.
"You just figure, 'When is it going to happen?' " said Decker, now 79, who viscerally understands the plight of Russian submariners who sit all but entombed in steel 500 feet below the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle.
Being trapped in a disabled sub, as more than 100 crewmen of the nuclear-powered sub Kursk found themselves Sunday, may be one of the most wrenching ordeals imaginable, a test of mettle that almost defies comprehension. In one form or another, it has inspired any number of books and movies, including "Das Boot" in 1981 and this year's "U-571."
The cruel elements of confinement and dwindling oxygen create the possibility of a slow death of a type that submariners invariably discuss among themselves, usually in the abstract. Few actually endure the experience.
Whether rescue teams had much chance of saving the Russian crewmen remained unclear late Monday. The sub lay hundreds of feet below the surface of the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway. Officials were only beginning to release sketchy details of the crisis. Some said they believed that the Kursk was involved in a collision on a training exercise, while others said there might have been an explosion. The sub's reactors were shut down, and Russian rescuers were diving near the vessel. Reports indicated success in reestablishing a supply of power and oxygen--a development that could perhaps sustain the crewmen for weeks. While that boded well, and while rescue technologies have substantially improved, the problems in carrying out a successful evacuation in deep water remain formidable.
Historically, far more men have died in downed subs than have survived. There are phases to their struggle: initially, frantic handling of mechanical problems and strategizing, followed by quieter moments of grim contemplation.
'They Knew Their Number Was Up'
As the hours go by, men get headaches. The diminishing oxygen makes each gasp harder to draw. Thinking becomes muddled, but they may face that impossible decision: stay aboard, protected from the crushing ocean depths, or risk an agonizing death with their lungs exploding in a desperate swim to the surface called a "blow and go"?
Clayton Decker's story is especially unusual because he got out alive. He was a machinist mate, second class, aboard the Tang, which exploded and sank in 180 feet of water off the coast of China. It was sunk by one of its own torpedoes, which ran errantly in a circle, hitting the 300-foot sub in the stern. All but nine of the 87 men aboard ultimately died.
Decker still breathes hard, more than half a century later, talking about the scene in the forward torpedo room, where 29 men were trapped, many of them seriously injured.
"Those poor guys who were not physically able . . . they knew their number was up," Decker said in a phone interview from his home near Denver.
Sudden heavy damage to a sub may complicate the question of survival by causing heavy injuries, he noted.
On the Tang, men were hurled against the steel walls and equipment of the sub, in some cases breaking arms and legs. Others were badly hurt as the craft began to take on water and go down.
U.S. submariners are trained--as their Russian counterparts presumably are as well--to make difficult, instantaneous decisions while their craft is sinking or on fire. Steel hatches are immediately closed, no matter who might be doomed to drown on the other side. As seawater began to flood in through the open top hatches of the Tang, two men dived headfirst from an upper-level "tower" down into the control room before it was sealed off.
One of those men suffered a broken neck, the other a broken back, Decker said. They were brought forward to the torpedo room, where the sub's escape chamber was located, but it was understood that they would go no farther. They silently endured their own thoughts while Decker desperately awaited the chance to exit, going up a buoyed line with the aid of emergency oxygen bags known as Momsen lungs.
"I said, 'There's got to be a way out of this son of a gun, and I'm going to make it,' " said Decker, adding that all his thoughts were focused on his family--his wife, Lucille, and 2-year-old son. Reflecting on loved ones--a wife one might never see again, children one might never watch grow up--is one of the inevitable obsessions of being down there.