‘People were going to die’: submarine crew trapped in searing heat after catastrophic systems failure

Dozens of crew members were trapped on a Royal Navy nuclear submarine in 60C heat after the air conditioning system failed, forcing HMS Turbulent to dive to 200m to cool down

HMS Turbulent

Temperatures on HMS Turbulent soared to more than 140F (60C) with 100 per cent humidity Photo: SWNS

Dozens of sailors were overcome by heat exhaustion when temperatures soared on board a British nuclear submarine after a “catastrophic” air-conditioning failure, it has been disclosed.

Eight submariners were left in a “life-threatening condition” as temperatures on HMS Turbulent rose to more than 140F (60C) with 100 per cent humidity, while engineers battled to fix the fault.

The previously undisclosed incident in the Indian Ocean has come to light three years later, after the commanding officer at the time gave a dramatic account of the crisis and revealed the situation was so critical he thought crew members were going to die.


Commander Ryan Ramsey (SWNS)

Cdr Ryan Ramsey, the submarine’s commanding officer, said: “I genuinely thought there was going to be a loss of life on board.

The 44-year-old, who recently retired from the Royal Navy, said the extreme temperatures left crew “just collapsing everywhere, many at their work stations”.

The hunter killer submarine was only three hours from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates on May 26, 2011, when the incident took place.

The boat had surfaced and Cdr Ramsey was on the bridge when engineers told him the air conditioning plants had “catastrophically” failed.

As he went below he was met by an “incredible blast of heat,” and the first casualties soon began to be taken ill.

Within hours many areas of the 275ft submarine had become makeshift sick bays, as 26 of the crew were taken casualty, he said.

“We had casualties in the control room, the engine room, the bridge, the wardroom, cabins, and the toilets and showers. It was absolutely terrifying, and I’m not afraid to say I was scared.

“Walking around the boat I saw true fear in my crew’s eyes.

“I saw genuine concern because we simply did not know how we were going to get through it.

“I felt like the world was against us.

“I was looking up and asking ‘when are you going to give me a break to gain the upper hand here?’

“People were crying, and it was all about survival.”

Cdr Ramsey said it was the first time such a malfunction had been reported on a vessel of this type – and the crew didn’t understand the exact cause of the problem. The heat meant the crew couldn’t reach the problem areas because the equipment was too hot to touch.

A decision was made that it was impossible to return to Fujairah with a “broken” nuclear submarine because of the political fallout. The crew opened two of the submarines hatches to release some of the heat and put some of the casualties outside, but with temperatures on the surface reaching 108F (42C) there was little respite.

The air conditioning system was used to cool sensitive equipment on board, which began to shut down.

A decision was made to dive to cooler water to reduce the heat.

“It was touch and go before we dived as to what might happen to us and the submarine,” he said.

“We couldn’t do anything. I could have radioed for help but it would have taken hours for anyone to reach us. In that time people would have died.

“We were alone in our steel tube. There really was no-one to call.”

Diving to a depth of more than 200 metres, the temperatures finally began to drop and within 24 hours systems had returned to normal and the crew were recovering. HMS Turbulent, based in Devonport, resumed her deployment.

Cdr Ramsey told the Plymouth Herald: “There’s not a day that goes by that I do not think about what happened. The pain of seeing my crew like that.

“But when I think back to that time I quickly remember how fantastic they all were in dealing with the situation.

“We recovered from it. They did exactly what they had to do, and looked after the team.”

Cdr Ramsey left the Royal Navy in March after 25 years’ service and said he had chosen to reveal the incident to highlight how “incredible” the secretive submarine service is.

He said: “The medical team was made up of one Petty Officer medic, another medic, and six or seven first-aiders and they did an unbelievable job under intense pressure.”

“That particular experience brought out some amazing actions from people who are rarely recognised, if ever, for what they do.”

HMS Turbulent, a Trafalgar Class submarine, was decommissioned in July 2012 at the end of a career of nearly 30 years.

A Royal Navy spokesman said the submarine’s nuclear reactor had never been at risk.

He said: “In 2011, a technical issue in HMS Turbulent resulted in a temporary rise in temperature on board the submarine.

“The problem, which caused no damage to the submarine or its reactor systems, was resolved by the crew after a few hours using standard operating procedures.

“A number of personnel who showed signs of heat related symptoms were treated by the submarine’s medical team.

“All recommendations resulting from the investigation into the incident have been fully implemented.”

Source – The Daily Telegraph

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5 thoughts on “‘People were going to die’: submarine crew trapped in searing heat after catastrophic systems failure

  1. Keith Hallam

    I wonder what would have happened if some AB or stoker had made this public?

    Anyway, this problem wouldn’t have just happened overnight, there must have been a buildup of sea-life over days or weeks with the aircon condensers cooling water flow getting less and less. I don’t know if it was some Back Afty or the Wreckers responsibility?

    Reply
    1. Sammy Young

      i was on a nuclear powered submarine in 1979 in the US Navy that had a similar situation- we were 5 days from Guam, the nearest place to get repaired, so we hauled ass to get there. then the ice machine broke down, then we were on water rations… longest 5 days in my life. when we surfaced to enter port, the captain stopped the boat a few miles from shore so the crew could have a swim call so we would be semi-presentable when we entered port. waiting for us were cases of ice cold soda, ice cream, and iced fruit. we attacked it like ants at a picnic! only long-term issue that i have is i get very cranky when i’m overheated…. oh, well… could of been worse, i suppose…

      Reply
  2. Sammy Young

    i was on a nuclear powered submarine in 1979 in the US Navy that had a similar situation- we were 5 days from Guam, the nearest place to get repaired, so we hauled ass to get there. then the ice machine broke down, then we were on water rations… longest 5 days in my life. when we surfaced to enter port, the captain stopped the boat a few miles from shore so the crew could have a swim call so we would be semi-presentable when we entered port. waiting for us were cases of ice cold soda, ice cream, and iced fruit. we attacked it like ants at a picnic! only long-term issue that i have is i get very cranky when i’m overheated…. oh, well… could of been worse, i suppose…

    Reply
  3. Stu

    Quote…“All recommendations resulting from the investigation into the incident have been fully implemented.”
    We don’t need to be pointing fingers at Back Afty’s or Wreckers, especially if we weren’t even onboard at the time the incident occurred do we Keith?

    Reply
  4. outsidewrecker

    I’m really sorry Stu…. so what you are saying is…. anything that happens anywhere, unless you were there at the time, you are not allowed to ask who’s job it was to maintain the equipment? Seriously?
    Anyway, I’ve ascertained on another site that the freon systems were fresh water cooled via a sea water/fresh water heat exchanger and the Cooling Water Services are definitely back afties part of ship.
    I’d like to know what these ‘recommendations’ were though.

    Reply

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