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Russian Sub Surfaces With Help of Little Creek Divers

July 26, 2008

By Louis Hansen, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jul. 26–After days of bad weather, engineering puzzles and creeping delays, military divers on Friday lifted the bow of a sunken Russian Cold War era submarine from the muddy bottom of the Providence River in Rhode Island.

Led by a Virginia Beach-based team, salvage crews hoisted the submarine Juliett 484 after pumping nearly a boat-load of water from the relic’s silty compartments.

“The bulk of the work was left to the divers,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Morganthaler, executive officer of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. “It’s a great training opportunity.”

A storm surge in April 2007 flooded the Russian boat, which was being used as a museum, at its pier in Providence. Navy and Army divers spotted it as a unique opportunity to train for actual missions. About 100 salvage and support personnel have been working on-site since June.

They faced one big engineering challenge — how to secure a 280-foot cigar-shaped boat lodged in mud and under 30 feet of water, lift it to the surface without it spinning away like a wet pole in a log-rolling contest.

It took careful planning and hundreds of hours of underwater work, said Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Lippmann, spokesman for the unit.

The team inspected, mapped and secured cables and belts to the vessel in near-zero-visibility waters. Hydraulic units righted the sub from a 45-degree list to nearly upright on the river bottom.

Divers then dug about a half-dozen tunnels underneath the 3,000-ton boat.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Eppleman dug three of them. With a partner, he worked a fire hose back and forth, blasting through the mud and silt. The divers punched 3-feet -by-3-feet holes below the sub, then pushed through to the other side, he said.

When he got halfway, he said he told himself, “I’m this far. I can make it to the other side.”

Crews snaked heavy wires and thick belts through the tunnels and fixed the ends to Volkswagen-sized inflatable pontoons. Each pontoon was capable of floating up to 90,000 pounds to the surface, Eppleman said.

About noon on Friday, salvage crews started eight pumps inside the vessel. Engineers estimated it was filled with 575,000 gallons of water, Lippmann said.

About six hours later, the sub’s bow broke the surface to cheers from the crew and curious onlookers.

The experience trained young divers for several possible real-world missions, said Master Chief Petty Officer Ross Garcia, the unit’s top enlisted sailor. The team could respond to a terrorist sinking of a large ship or clear shipping channels choked by damaged or abandoned ships. “It provides us real salvage problems,” he said.

The Soviet Navy commissioned the boat, known as K-77, in 1965. The Soviets generally armed the coal-black Juliett-class attack submarines with four nuclear-tipped missiles with a range of more than 300 miles. The potential targets were U.S. cities, naval installations and aircraft carriers.

Relieved of its military duties in the early 1990s, the submarine became an object of fancy for night club promoters, movie producers and naval enthusiasts. It served as the set for the Harrison Ford movie, “K-19: The Widowmaker.”

Six years ago, a non-profit foundation purchased the boat and moved it to Providence. It opened as the Russian Sub Museum, a peek behind the Iron Curtain for its former adversaries.

A commercial salvage operation would have cost the non-profit organization more than its $500,000 insurance coverage.

On Friday evening, Morganthaler said the soldiers and sailors still had work to do. The sub’s stern still rested at the bottom, and pumps continued to run.

Louis Hansen, (757) 446-2322, louis.hansen@pilotonline.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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