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K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER

The Real K-19 Disaster
In 1961 the Cold War was at its zenith. Both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were trapped together in a hall of mirrors, each captivated by images of the other's nuclear strength and willingness to use it. In November of 1960, the United States sent the USS George Washington, its first Polaris missile submarine, on patrol. The sophisticated vessel, able to lurk undetected off Russian coasts for months at a time, was capable of launching 16 nuclear missiles on a moment's notice. In response, the Soviet leadership rushed to place its own first nuclear ballistic missile submarine into service, though it meant risking the crew in an untried and unready vessel.

Often referred to as the "Silent Service,” submarines have always been dangerous boats (submariners traditionally call their vessels boats), and the K-19 -- at more than 4000 tons and nearly 400 feet long -- was no exception. During the Cold War, the United States Navy lost two nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher in 1963 and the USS Scorpion in 1968, both with all hands on board. The Soviets also lost two nuclear submarines during that trying period of history, and later, in 2000, the democratic Russia suffered the Kursk disaster even as "K-19: The Widowmaker” was beginning pre-production.

The K-19 was an exceptionally risky submarine to be aboard. The three ballistic missiles she carried used liquid fuel -- toxic, corrosive and explosive -- exceedingly tricky to handle. Even worse, her nuclear reactor sacrificed safety margins for power and compactness. On July 4, 1961, while under way on exercises, K-19 developed a leak in her reactor cooling system. Left unchecked, the leak could have led to a core meltdown of the reactor. Although it could not explode like a nuclear bomb, a reactor core meltdown had the potential to produce dangerous radiation and an intense radioactive explosion. Amid the tensions at the peak of the Cold War, such an explosion so close to a NATO facility might well have spiraled into a catastrophic military confrontation between the Super Powers.

Faced with this unthinkable eventuality -- and the equally unthinkable alternative of accepting American help -- the crew of K-19 had to do what they could to repair the leak. And so they did, at a terrible cost: 7 men died of exposure to radioactivity almost immediately, and 14 died shortly thereafter.

Amazingly, after that terrible incident, K-19 was repaired and returned to service, but it continued to be a jinxed boat. In 1969, it collided underwater with the U.S. submarine Gato and was badly damaged. Still, K-19 managed to return to port, and in 1972, it suffered a disastrous fire while submerged, losing 28 crewmembers. In fact, Soviet submariners eventually dubbed the ill-fated vessel "Hiroshima.”

The 1961 accident that forms the story of "K-19: The Widowmaker” was covered up during the Soviet era, leaving the heroism and sacrifice of K-19's crew unrecognized for 30 years. According to producer Joni Sighvatsson, it's "a real human drama about people with enormous commitment to their country, and even more commitment to their profession, their peers and their fellow human beings” that has to be told.

"We were always intrigued by the mystery, the secrecy surrounding K-19, but we brought the project to Kathryn Bigelow because we knew she'd explore the humanity behind the story, not just the suspense,” adds producer Christine Whitaker. "She'd give audiences a way to relate to the Russians.”

"Understandably, the Communist regime did not consider it a shining moment in history,” observes director/producer Kathryn Bigelow. "So, because it did not happen in wartime, they assigned no heroism to it. They classified it as merely an accident. I hope ‘K-19: The Widowmaker' will change all that.”

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