sail hatches had been cracked, and crewmen were scrambling out into the
cold, wet, and windswept near-darkness, battling the black waves
breaking over the submarine from bow to shattered stern as they ripped
open deck panels and broke out the life rafts. Their task was made more
difficult by panic, and by the fact that the deck was canted sharply aft
and to port; the sail was listing at a forty-five-degree angle, and each
swell of the sea breaking over and past it sent torrents of water
cascading down the after escape trunk hatch.
Vyatkin clung to the railing at the side of the bridge, high atop the
sail, and watched miserably as his crew fought to save themselves. For a
time, he’d thought, possibly, that Kislovodsk might be saved. He’d known
the damage to the engineering spaces and propeller shaft must be grave,
but if the sub could be kept on the surface, a tug out of Sevastopol
could have them back in port by morning.
But that final shock that had catapulted them to the surface–that had
been the final blow. He could tell by the wallowing feel of the vessel
that he would remain at the surface only a few more moments before
making his final dive.
Vyatkin only hoped that all of the crew could get out first.
He heard the thuttering roar of helicopters. .. probably the Americans
who’d been pinging them. The nearest Russian ships must be a hundred
miles away. If only- Light exploded from starboard, a dazzling whiteness
that, at first, he thought was a flare. Then the beam swept across
Kislovodsk’s hull, illuminating dozens of life-jacketed sailors already
afloat in the water, the soft orange shape of a raft already smothered
by desperate men, and the black sheen of oil. It took Vyatkin a
mind-numbing moment to realize that another submarine had surfaced a
hundred meters abeam, that it was playing a searchlight across his dying
command. By the back-scatter of that light, he could see one of the
helicopters approaching, its rotor noise growing louder as it gentled
toward the stricken Kislovodsk. A second light winked on, gleaming from
the helo’s side. Something spilled from the open door, expanding as it
A life raft. The Americans were dropping life rafts.
“Comrade Captain!” Aleksanyan called, shouting into his ear to be heard
above the wind and the growing thunder of the helicopters. “We must
Grimly, Vyatkin nodded. For a moment, he’d entertained romantic notions
of going down with his command. .. but he found that, after all, he
wasn’t quite ready to die.
Aleksanyan handed him a life jacket and he began to strap it on.
1840 hours (Zulu +3)
Flight deck, U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson Commander Willis E. “Coyote” Grant
strapped on the safety helmet, known aboard ship as a “cranial,” before
stepping out of the Mangler’s 0-4 compartment and onto the carrier’s
flight deck. The air inside the compartment was crackling with radio
calls; the Deck Handler–more familiarly called the “Mangler”–and his
crew were frantically repositioning aircraft silhouettes on the big
Plexiglas diagram of Jefferson’s flight deck, updating the model to
reflect the realities of aircraft positions outside.
He stepped through the doorway and onto the flight deck; the gathering
night was held at bay here by the glare of spotlights, both from
Jefferson’s island and from the helicopters overhead. Most deck
operations had been suspended half an hour earlier when the word had
come down that a Russian sub was in trouble twenty miles to the
northwest. SH-3 Sea Kings were shuttling back and forth between the
Jefferson and the sub now, bringing in another handful of wet,
oil-smeared survivors with each trip.
It was a painstakingly slow process. The Sea Kings of HS-19 were ASW
aircraft, their cargo compartments crammed with so much electronics gear
that there was precious little room for passengers above and beyond the
usual four-man crew.
Still, there was a little space aft of the sensor suite, and each
aircraft was fitted with a winch and sling to haul people out of the
water. They were ferrying survivors back to Jefferson’s flight deck just
as quickly as they could harvest them from the oil-slicked waters of the
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