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Sinking of sub Thresher still wounds, 50 years later

Barbara Currier, 86, of Exeter, N.H., lost her husband, Paul, who was a civilian machinist aboard the USS Thresher on April 10, 1963.

Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe

Barbara Currier, 86, of Exeter, N.H., lost her husband, Paul, who was a civilian machinist aboard the USS Thresher on April 10, 1963.

On that spring day 50 years ago, Barbara Currier of Exeter, N.H., busied herself with errands and brought two of her children to a downtown department store.

Her husband, Paul Currier, 40, was a civilian machinist on the USS Thresher, the world’s most advanced nuclear submarine, which had left the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard the previous day for diving tests more than 200 miles off Cape Cod.

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The morning of April 10, 1963, was expected to be another round of rigorous but routine sea trials for the pride of the nation’s sub fleet. But what happened would jolt the nation: the worst submarine disaster in US history; the loss of all 129 crew, officers, and civilians on board; and a stinging blow to the American military at the hair-trigger height of the Cold War.

As the 278-foot-long Thresher began its descent that morning, only six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the unthinkable happened.

A pipe burst, electrical circuits shorted, nuclear propulsion shut down, and sailors on the USS Skylark, a trailing Navy ship, received these words from below: “Exceeding test depth.”

The nuclear submarine was undergoing sea trials when it sank off Cape Cod in the worst US submarine disaster.

US Navy via Associated Press/file 1960

The nuclear submarine was undergoing sea trials when it sank off Cape Cod in the worst US submarine disaster.

They heard little else from the crew, and the Thresher plunged more than a mile to the bottom of the North Atlantic. The Skylark, however, did hear the submarine’s death rattle: ominous hissing and groaning that preceded a devastating implosion that killed everyone on board within seconds.

“It seems just like yesterday to me,” 86-year-old Barbara Currier said from the same home where two Navy officers told her of the Thresher’s fate.

To help ensure that day is not forgotten, a memorial service was held Saturday at Portsmouth High School to commemorate the sacrifice of Currier and the other men who died. Organizers said about 1,200 people attended, including 76 former Thresher crew members and relatives of the lost.

“We are trying to create a sense of support and community for these families. We make sure they feel welcome,” said Kevin Galeaz, commander of Thresher Base, a local chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans.

On Sunday, a 129-foot flagpole — one foot for each person lost — is scheduled to be dedicated in Kittery, Maine, where the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is located.

The sudden loss of the Thresher, a fast-attack submarine designed to find and sink its Soviet counterparts, stunned the Navy. But the tragedy led directly to a rigorous reexamination of US submarine safety that is credited with preventing similar accidents.

“The Navy had an introspection,” said Galeaz, a veteran of the submarine service. “Not only did they do an inquiry, but they changed everything: quality control, inspections — everything changed. And that’s literally because of these guys on the Thresher.”

The remains of the disintegrated Thresher were discovered in 1985 by oceanographer Robert Ballard, who received secret funding from the Navy to search for the submarine while traveling to his publicly announced goal, the wreck of the RMS Titanic, which he also found on the voyage.

To Currier, who never remarried, her husband of 10 years and the men who died with him are heroes. “He was asked to go out on the sea trials and, of course, you say yes when it’s your job,” she said.

The day after the Thresher put to sea, Currier was shopping with two daughters, 6 and 8, when she heard a radio bulletin that a submarine was overdue. “I said, ‘We’ve got to go home; I’ve got to listen to the radio.’ I knew somebody would be trying to get in touch with me,” Currier recalled. “The Navy Yard called me almost as soon as I got home to tell me it was overdue. But, of course, everybody was hoping that they would hear something from them overnight.

“The next day, two naval officers came to my house and told me they had concluded it was lost with all hands, no survivors,” Currier added. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, what do I do now without him?’ ”

Annual memorial services have helped, said Currier, who planned to attend her 48th on Saturday. However, she added, the publicity for the 50th anniversary — several interviews and a documentary — has made the tragedy more vivid.

“This year it’s been tough, but I don’t dwell on it because you can’t,” Currier said. “Life is for the living. You have to go on.”

Still, she added, the life-changing pain of that day is never far away.

“Maybe it’s because I had five children, and I’ve tried to keep their father alive for them, and because he was the love of my life,” Currier said.

Like yesterday, as she said. Fifty long years later.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly described the discovery of the wreck. The submarine’s remains were found in 1963 by the bathyscaphe Trieste.

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