Explosion aboard British sub in Arctic Ocean leaves 2 dead

Times Staff Writer

An explosion involving an oxygen canister killed two sailors and seriously injured a third on a submerged British nuclear submarine late Tuesday in the ice-topped Arctic Ocean about 180 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

The vessel, taking part in classified tactical exercises with the U.S. Navy, remained locked on the surface of the Arctic ice shelf, one of the most remote and forbidding places on the planet. The air temperature there routinely dips to minus 50 degrees, and a person immersed in ocean water can die in seconds.

A British officer at the scene said the explosion occurred a safe distance from the submarine’s nuclear reactor, which is in the rear of the vessel. Lt. Cmdr. Stuart Capes of the Royal Navy said neither the reactor nor the torpedoes were damaged or in danger of exploding.

Early information indicated that the blast involved a canister at the front of the attack submarine Tireless, a 280-foot-long vessel armed with single-strike ship-destroying torpedoes.


The Royal Navy did not disclose the cause of the blast.

Lt. Col. Andrew Price, a Royal Navy spokesman said in a phone interview from Britain that the explosion could have been catastrophic had it “violated the integrity of the submarine.”

If the sub’s outer wall had been ruptured, allowing water in, the vessel would have been destroyed and the estimated 140 crew members would have died.

Price said damage to the vessel was limited to an area on the upper decks of the sub’s front end and did not breach the hull. He said the names of the casualties will be released after the families are notified.

Evacuation of the injured man involved a daring effort by American and British workers at a nearby ice camp that serves as a command center for the naval exercises. The workers, most of them engineers, scientists and technicians, drove snowmobiles in subzero temperatures and in darkness over two miles of unknown ice terrain to reach the spot where the submarine had surfaced to vent smoke and heat.

The workers transported the injured sailor to the ice camp. From there he was flown to a hospital in Anchorage, completing a journey that took eight hours and involved a snowmobile, a helicopter and a fixed-wing plane.

“I’ve never known any of us to take a snow machine through unknown ice -- at night,” said Eric Reynolds, a U.S. Navy spokesman at the ice camp.

The bodies also were taken to the camp and flown out Wednesday.


The accident is believed to be the first of its kind for the modern British navy, and American authorities at the scene said there had been no similar fatal explosion aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine.

According to Royal Navy sources, the type of oxygen canister involved, which is designed to generate breathable air, has been in use for only three years. U.S. submarines do not use such canisters.

“We’ve never had anything like this happen before. Ever,” said a visibly shaken Jeff Gossett, test director for the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory, which was helping coordinate the exercises. Gossett has spent much of the last three weeks at the ice camp.

The accident ended what had been an almost jovial atmosphere at the camp, which houses about 50 naval officers, scientists, engineers and technicians.


Similar U.S.-British submarine exercises have taken place every few years for two decades, with the most worrisome threat involving wind, ice or the polar bears that sometimes wander into camp.

The exercises began in early March and were scheduled to continue through early April. The camp is made up of a dozen or so plywood shanties on an ice floe about a mile in diameter.

The Tireless surfaced within 45 minutes of the explosion. Rescuers said the sub surfaced between two ice floes a mile or two from the ice camp.

The submarine, commissioned in 1985, was conducting war games with the U.S. attack submarine Alexandria, a nuclear-powered vessel armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and torpedoes.


Both subs are considered “hunter-killer” vessels, more agile and versatile than the Trident nuclear submarines that carry ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Hunter-killer subs are designed to attack ships and other submarines, and often accompany aircraft carriers.

The exercises were intended to sharpen submarine fighting techniques in extreme cold. One U.S. Navy official described the nature of the exercises this way: “Alexandria hunted Tireless, then Tireless hunted Alexandria.”

The submarines were not involved in an exercise at the time of the explosion.