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The Military Is Dangerous Work

I have been watching this to see if there would be more details released, but I think we have most of the relevant information.

The BBC story: Twenty die on Russian submarine

At least 20 people have died in an accident on a Russian nuclear submarine when a fire extinguishing system was activated by mistake.

Russian Pacific Fleet spokesman Igor Dygalo said both sailors and shipyard workers died in the accident, which occurred during sea trials.

The dead were suffocated by freon gas, which is used to put out fires as it removes oxygen from the air.

The vessel was not damaged and there was no radiation leak, Mr Dygalo said.


The system used on the submarine is quite familiar to people who work, or have worked in large computer rooms or telecommunications centers, as halon fire suppression systems are effective without the destructive side effects of sprinkler systems. Most US military and civilian operations used Halon 1301, but the key element in this accident is that you either evacuate or go on oxygen [in an aircraft] before activating the system.

Apparently the compartment was sealed and the halon discharged without a warning sounding. Automatic systems all sound a warning and delay to give time for evacuation before flooding the area when functioning normally.

The vessel was on its sea trials with dockyard workers on board, so it is possible that someone in the compartment accidentally activated the system while testing. As old sergeants teaching young troops say: “The most common last words in the military are: I wonder what this does?”

2 comments

1 fallenmonk { 11.09.08 at 7:49 pm }

Not a pleasant way to go. Halon is heavier than air and floods the compartment from the bottom up. Even during discharge before the room is full you can get a deep breath and it replaces the oxygen in your lungs and being so heavy is almost impossible to remove before you asphyxiate. You comment about “I wonder what this does?” is probably the most likely scenario in a case like this.

2 Bryan { 11.09.08 at 8:04 pm }

It replaced the carbon tetrachloride extinguishers we had when I started flying, but with either one, you went to your mask first. It was also used for engine and fuel tank fires on aircraft.

The guys who worked with it always had breathing systems nearby and preferred to do servicing outside, rather than in a hanger.

We used it in all the computer rooms I worked in, which all all air tight doors and positive pressure to keep out contaminates. They told us there was a 1 minute delay, but I don’t know anyone who wanted to time it from inside.

The hatches must have been shut, and they probably lock when the system starts dispensing the halon.

Normally in a fire you drop and crawl because carbon monoxide is lighter and rises to the top, but that is exactly the wrong thing to do with halon.

It was new vessel testing – things rarely work correctly with anything as complex as a submarine, or an aircraft.