Army and Navy help save Providence’s Russian Sub

By
Thursday, October 11, 2007

After a storm hit Rhode Island in April, Providence’s only Russian submarine – one of two of its kind in the world – sank. The 300-ft.-long black sub, called Juliett 484, was part of a fleet of Russian subs built at a Polish shipyard in 1964. It had floated in the Providence River for nearly five years before the storm flooded and sank the sub. But come this spring, the sub will be resurrected, with a little help from the U.S. military.

In August, about 24 Army and Navy divers plunged into the river to anchor the sub to land, said Bill Sheridan, sub manager for the Russian Sub Museum. The anchors will secure the sub during winter storms, ensuring it won’t float down Narragansett Bay. The divers also measured the submarine to prepare for its resurrection next spring, when the Army and Navy crews are slated to come back with proper equipment.

The Russian Sub Museum opened to the public in August 2002 as a resource for Soviet history buffs. Before highway construction made the museum – located about two miles south of the Providence Place mall – less accessible to visitors, the sub averaged 10,000 visitors annually, Sheridan said.

The 43-year-old Juliett 484 first targeted cities on the U.S. East Coast with “nuclear-tipped cruise missiles,” Sheridan said. When the Soviets began to use newer ships to target cities, the sub targeted large American carrier ships in the Atlantic.

The Juliett was retired in 1994, and before long a Finnish man bought it from a shipyard in Latvia and converted it into a tourist attraction in Helsinki, Finland, complete with a restaurant and vodka bar. Before it made its way to Providence in 2002, the sub was used in the filming of the 2002 movie “K-19: the Widowmaker.” When buying the sub from a Florida businessman who had acquired it, the film company agreed to find the sub a new home.

The North Kingstown-based USS Saratoga Museum Foundation, an organization created in 1998 with the goal of converting the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga into a museum and entertainment center in Rhode Island, acquired the sub in 2002. The foundation was interested in the sub as a source of income to help it stay afloat while then-Gov. Lincoln Almond failed to support the group’s plan to anchor the Saratoga in Narragansett Bay, Sheridan said. Admission fees from the sub allowed the largely volunteer-run foundation to survive through the rest of Almond’s term, Sheridan said. Current Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 supports the foundation’s efforts, and the group has raised enough money to buy the Saratoga and move it to Rhode Island.

Army and Navy divers surveyed the Russian sub as a training exercise through a Navy program that trains divers in real-world scenarios before sending them on actual salvage or rescue operations. The same Navy unit that sent divers to Providence also sent divers to Minneapolis, Minn., following the August collapse of a bridge over the Mississippi River. Divers from the unit have also begun a salvage operation in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where a collapsed artificial reef made of tires littered the ocean’s floor. Divers investigated the tires in June to determine how to best remove them, and they will return to actually remove the tires in a later operation, said Lt. Cdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, public affairs officer for the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, based in Norfolk, Va.

Whether the Army and Navy come back to Providence depends on how many divers can be spared for training projects.

“We’d like to see it through,” Hull-Ryde said. But “if another Hurricane Katrina hit and we had to help with those kinds of recovery operations,” the Army and Navy may not be able to spare divers in the spring, she added.

If the Army and Navy divers are able to re-float and drain the sub in the spring, the museum will evaluate the damage to the sub’s interior and decide how to proceed. If the water has damaged the sub completely, it could be sold to a salvage yard and cut up for scrap metal, Sheridan said, or used as an artificial reef to encourage water-life growth in the Atlantic. But Sheridan said he hopes at least part of the museum can be salvaged and reopened to the public.