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18 Indian navy crew members feared dead in sub disaster
Publication Date : 15-08-2013
A huge blast, probably sparked by the buildup of combustible hydrogen gas in the course of battery charging, around Tuesday midnight sank the Navy's INS Sindhurakshak submarine with18 Navy crew members, including three officers, on board in the shallow waters of Mumbai's naval dockyard.
A devastating fire lit the grey-soggy skies of south Mumbai as the Navy's fire fighters backed by civic fire tenders rushed to the dockyard in full force to bring the blaze under control and prevent damage to other vessels of then navy in the vicinity.
The navy declared its 18 personnel missing pending confirmation of feared fatalities, although defence minister AK Antony grieved the loss of lives in Delhi before he flew to Mumbai to acquaint himself with rescue operations at the naval dockyard.
Huge cranes have been deployed to salvage the badly damaged submarine so that the Board of Inquiry instituted by the naval headquarters into the accident can get underway to establish reasons behind the accident.
Sources at the dockyard say it would take a day or two before Sindhurakshak can be fully accessed by the Board of Inquiry.
The other probability for the fire being unofficially discussed at the site is that the hydrogen combustion might have accidentally detonated tactical action warheads or torpedoes, resulting in the devastating explosion that engulfed the submarine, drowning it where it was berthed.
A massive fireball, eyewitnesses say, was seen at the Lion's gate, which is the Western Naval Command's high security entry point.
That the disastrous accident was triggered by hydrogen coming in close proximity of torpedo storage gets credence from the recovery of missile splinters found at the dockyard.
However, the defence minister, accompanied by Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief vice admiral Shekhar Sinha, after his visit told reporters at the site that what had precisely happened would be determined by the Board of Inquiry.
Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who also joined the defence minister, said the state government has put all emergency services on alert and at the disposal of the Indian navy.
A press release issued by the navy said, “Due to as-yet-unknown damage suffered as a result of the explosion, the submarine has submerged at her berth with only a portion visible above the surface. About 18 persons were on board the submarine at the time of the accident. Efforts are on to ascertain the safety of the personnel and salvage the submarine.”
Soon after the blast, navy's divers tried to access the crew members but the submarine's hatches were too tightly shut—probably from inside or due to the overheated sub—blocking the rescue operation.
From a distance, it looked submerged with its top partially visible.
The damaged submarine was a Kilo-class vehicle; they have been named so by the United States-led Nato because they operate on a combination of diesel and electric batteries that require periodic charging.
Experts say Kilo-class submarines are not fitted with an automatic monitoring system that can detect overcharged batteries.
One of the possible causes of the fatal explosion is that the exhaust passage of combustible hydrogen gas during the course of charging of batteries was hindered.
The hydrogen produced is sucked out via two blowers in all Kilo-class subs. If the vacuous space available for the escape of the gas is even partially blocked, a combustion is possible.
Although INS Sindhurakshak is the ninth in the series of 10 "Sindhoghosh-class", Tuesday night's blast is a serious blow to the Navy, experts say.
The 2,300-ton sub had returned to Mumbai's Naval Dockyard on 29 April this year from Russia, where it underwent overhaul and refitting for more than two years.
Sindhurakshak suffered a minor blast when it was berthed at the navy's Vishakhapatnam dockyard on Feb 26, 2010, following which it sailed to Russia for repairs which cost about US$80 million.
The navy's fleet consists of 16 submarines. Other seven Kilo-class subs too were given refit in Russia.
The Kilo-class was launched by the erstwhile Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Bargaining to acquire Sindhurakshak started in 1985. These Kilo-class subs are deployed for both anti-ship and anti-sub operations, and are a high point in the Navy's fire power.