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Prospects dim for sailors on exploded Indian sub

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:42 p.m.

NEW DELHI — Hopes were fading late Wednesday after an explosion and fire on an Indian submarine left three officers and 15 sailors trapped inside, and navy divers failed to make contact or discern signs of life coming from inside the stranded vessel, officials said.

The explosion occurred about 12:30 a.m., leaving the diesel- and electric-powered submarine largely submerged at a dock in Mumbai, where it was berthed, the navy said. Grainy social media footage showed a huge white and yellow explosion illuminating the midnight sky like a premature dawn, followed by a blaze that lasted several hours. The base where the accident took place is a secure area off-limits to reporters.

“We should hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst,” Adm. Devendra Kumar Joshi, chief of the naval staff, told reporters at a news conference in Mumbai. “The explosions were massive, and we've had no contact with any of the sailors. They are missing for more than 12 hours now.”

Defense Minister A.K. Antony said in New Delhi that several crew members died, without providing details. “It is the greatest tragedy of recent times,” he added.

Joshi said engineers were trying to pump water out of the stricken submarine, allowing it to float. Rescue workers managed to pry open the main hatch, fused by heat from the fire and explosion, he said, and were working on creating other openings.

Authorities have ordered an investigation into the causes of the disaster, with early media speculation focused on a gas leak or an explosion involving the vessel's cruise missiles and torpedoes.

“It's a very nasty one,” said Rahul Bedi, India correspondent with IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, a military publication. “In a confined space, it's very tricky once that happens.”

While sabotage has not been ruled out, officials said this was almost certainly an accident. The vessel carried large amounts of ammonium, fuel and oxygen and “any combination of any of these malfunctioning” could lead to an explosion, Joshi said.

If it turns out the accident is related to the cruise missiles, it will revive a long-standing argument in naval circles, said Raja Menon, an analyst and retired rear admiral.

“There's been a controversy for a half-century on the wisdom of putting rocket fuel in submarines,” he said. “If it was the cruise missiles, that controversy comes up again.”

The 16-year-old Russian-built submarine Sindhurakshak, which translates as Sea Defender, had a fire in its battery systems in 2010 that killed a crew member, although navy officials said they saw no link between the two accidents.

The Sindhurakshak, which is 238 feet long, 32 feet wide and carries a full crew of 58, returned from Russia last year after an extensive $80 million overhaul. When Wednesday's accident occurred, 40 crew members were either on shore or managed to jump off the ship, navy officials said. Three sailors who were on deck and managed to escape with minor injuries were “in a state of complete shock and trauma and unable to speak about last night's explosion,” Joshi said.

The vessel is one of 10 Indian Kilo-class submarines acquired from Moscow between 1986 and 2000 and equipped with Russian Club-S cruise missile systems.

The accident comes at an awkward time. On Monday, the navy launched its first domestically produced aircraft carrier with great fanfare and two days earlier the reactor on its first nuclear submarine was activated. Thursday is India's independence day.

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