ShareThis Page

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.