Man-Made Disasters Sinking of the U.S. Submarine Thresher Part 2

About the sinking of the U.S. nuclear submarine the Thresher in 1963, history and account of the man-made disaster and tragedy.

NATURAL AND MAN-MADE DISASTERS

THE THRESHER

Skylark set off flare signals, tapped out Morse code, and kept careful watch. A routine report scheduled to come through at 10:17 was not heard.

The sub was noted as missing at 11:04. An official search was organized with the help of U.S. sub Seawolf, naval destroyer Warrington, and several spotter planes. By nightfall, the Warrington had discovered some pieces of cork, a small oil slick, bits of plastic from reactor protective shields, and a few of the yellow and red plastic gloves used in the Thresher's nuclear reactor section.

A rescue mission was deemed impossible since only one tenth of the ocean's depth was navigable. Nevertheless, "the search" continued, even in the face of powerful winds, high waves, and dark, cloudy skies. An official statement conceded the loss of the Thresher. Families were notified. "Another Unsolved Mystery of the Sea!" headlined the newspapers.

For the next two days, a 12,000-sq.-mi. area of the Atlantic was scanned by two subs, four destroyers, two frigates, and two sub-rescue vessels. On the third day, the search area was cut by 50%. The Trieste, a special rescue vessel with the ability to travel deeper than most subs, was shipped from California to assist.

Several months later, the Thresher's muddy burial mound was spotted on the ocean floor. The navy documented the Thresher's remains by photographing the "underwater junkyard" of ruptured metal plate, pipes, paper, electric cable, a red and yellow shoe cover, an oxygen bottle, and a book. The piece of piping that displayed the Thresher's number--593--was pulled out of the sea by bathysphere. The crew of 129 was presumed dead, and the hunt was abandoned owing to the great risk involved.

Aftermath: The navy set up an official inquiry and conducted most of it in secret session. Testimony revealed that the pretest overhaul work on the Thresher had been very trying and poorly handled. It was also discovered that the nuclear sub had been rammed by a tug in June of 1962, and that the collision had produced a 3-ft. break in the hull, close to the ballast tanks. Additionally, two years prior to that accident, deep-dive tests had been canceled because Thresher's structure showed signs of "abnormal strain."

The inquiry ended on June 20, 1963. The navy decided that a failure in the Thresher's saltwater piping system, coupled with the high-pressure environment, had resulted in massive flooding at the hull, which in turn had short-circuited the transformer, killed the reactor, and caused the sub's tail to sink. The Thresher quickly exceeded its depth limit and hit the ocean floor 8,400 ft. below at a speed of 150 mph. If the Thresher was not capsized on impact, then it certainly was crushed by the tremendous water pressure exerted upon it (4,000 lb. per sq. in.).

Another theory that sought to explain the disaster was put forth by a team of scientists researching Scotland's Loch Ness Monster. They suggested that the Thresher got caught in a violent water disturbance, suffered massive damage, and sank.

Maintaining that Thresher's basic design was sound, the navy built 22 similar subs. Two years later, in 1965, naval officials testified that several of these nuclear vessels had almost been lost due to defects in design and workmanship.

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