Thursday, February 23, 2006

Film tells of Soviet crew's heroism


The Republican
February 23, 2006

Although the personality of his real skipper was quite different from what was portrayed in the 2002 movie "K-19: The Widowmaker," Vladimir Pogorelov believes that Harrison Ford fits the part of Soviet Capt. Alexei Vostrikov perfectly.

"K-19: The Widowmaker" - pretty much the only Hollywood movie asking its audience to root for the Soviets - is based on a true story of the first Russian ballistic missile-equipped nuclear submarine that was badly damaged by a radiation leak during a war game in the Norwegian Sea, some 100 miles away from the NATO base, 45 years ago.

Pogorelov, now a 75-year-old retired captain second rank living in Kiev, Ukraine, was a member of the crew that contained the deadly emergency, which could have caused a nuclear contamination many times worse than the Chernobyl disaster and perhaps triggered a new world war.

"There are many details (in the movie) that are inaccurate or even wrong, and Nikolay Zateyev (the actual K-19 commander, who died in 1998) was a different person (from the movie character), but somehow Ford manages to convince even me," Pogorelov says.

It's clear even over the phone that the subject still evokes a lot of emotions in him.

The audience, critics and the K-19 survivors gave the movie a mixed reception.

Pogorelov, one of those crewmen who met with Harrison Ford, co-star Liam Neeson, and the film's director Kathryn Bigelow to tell their story, was very pleased with the result.

"Despite all the errors, they did a great job. They told our story, which was officially suppressed for decades."

There is no character in the movie named Pogorelov, but there is Gorelov, who "does things that I didn't do," Pogorelov said.

"But still, you can say there is some part of me in this."

Nine of the crewmen who worked in the reactor area facing the lethal radioactive cloud died within days. A dozen more died within a couple of years. The rest suffered varying degrees of radiation-related illness.

Out of the 139-man crew, 56 are still alive.

Pogorelov, then captain-lieutenant, the assistant to the chief engineering officer, remained on board the boat when half of the crew was evacuated. By that moment, he had replaced his chief who had supervised the men but had gone into Compartment 6 on a suicide mission to cool the reactor.

"I abandoned the boat just before the captain."

Most of the men were never honored by their country.

Anatoliy Titarchuk, the former K-19's petty officer 1st class, turbine operator, and now a professor at the Cherkasy State Technological University, Ukraine, said a timepiece received from the commander of the Russian Northern shortly after the accident is the only token of appreciation that he has.

"I don't complain," says Titarchuk.

Pogorelov was among the few recommended for the Order of Lenin, the highest national order of the Soviet Union. He was, however, eventually given the Order of the Red Star, a lesser award.

"The country's leaders just wanted to bury all the information on what had happened there. And somebody said that the Order of Lenin was too much to give for the accident. But they awarded us by the same decree as German Titov," who was the second human in space, Pogorelov said.

Both Pogorelov and Titarchuk are planning to attend a crew reunion in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 4, the anniversary of the accident.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed earlier this month to nominate the crew of K-19 for a Nobel Peace Prize.

"All those who were on board K-19 that morning and did their job deserve to be regarded by mankind as people who did their utmost to save peace on earth. Awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to the crew of the K-19 submarine would come as a fitting tribute to their exploit, the importance of which only grows with the passage of time ... (and would become) a worthy symbol marking the irreversible end of the Cold War," Gorbachev wrote in his request to the Nobel Committee.



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