Shipwreck disaster experts are calling for a deep-sea expedition to a lost U.S. nuclear attack sub, the USS Scorpion, in an effort to verify a new theory on what caused the Cold War vessel to sink.
The Scorpion was lost May 22, 1968, killing 99 men, about 400 miles south of the Azores Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The sub has been inspected by undersea recovery teams, including a visit in 1985 by oceanographer Robert Ballard before his team’s discovery of the Titanic shipwreck.
The cause of the sub’s loss remains hotly disputed. A Navy Court of Inquiry found “the cause of the loss cannot be definitively ascertained.”
“The families of those 99 men are still out there, and they want to know what happened,” says former U.S. naval officer Paul Boyne, who presented a new mechanical explanation for the loss of the sub at a recent marine forensics symposium outside Washington.
Panelists at the event called for a summer expedition to the sub’s wreck, led by P.H. Nargeolet, another Titanic explorer, saying it might put to rest a multitude of theories about the Scorpion’s demise — ranging from a covert Soviet attack to a torpedo self-firing into the ship to a faulty trash disposal.
Evidence for a more mundane explanation comes from the sub’s propeller shaft, Boyne says. Undersea photographs show it rests about 20 yards outside the wreck on the seafloor, about 11,220 feet underwater.
Boyne suggests that rubber bearings holding the propeller shaft failed, putting stress on the coupling connecting it to the engine.
The coupling’s bolts failed catastrophically during a deep test dive, the theory goes, spilling water into the sub too rapidly to allow ballast maneuvers to raise the ship to the surface.
As support, Boyne points to the loss in 1963 of the USS Thresher, the only other nuclear submarine lost by the Navy. The Thresher suffered a similar crushing end but retained its propeller shaft within its hull.