Navy catastrophe

Eighteen sailors,including three officers,were feared dead after multiple explosions ripped through the torpedo compartment of one of India’s mainstay Kilo class submarines berthed at the Naval Dockyard in Colaba

Written by Express News Service | Mumbai | Updated: April 8, 2014 5:57 pm

Eighteen sailors,including three officers,were feared dead after multiple explosions ripped through the torpedo compartment of one of India’s mainstay Kilo class submarines berthed at the Naval Dockyard in Colaba,Mumbai,around midnight on Tuesday.

INS Sindhurakshak,which was sunk by the explosions,is the first Indian submarine to go down during active service. Three among the crew,who were outside the submarine,jumped overboard to safety. They are said to be in a state of shock and under medical care. Of the total crew of 58,21 were on board when the incident happened.

Calling the incident a “catastrophe” at a press meet after inspecting the accident site at the Western Command,Chief of Naval Staff Admiral D K Joshi said: “We cannot rule out the possibility of sabotage. Although the indicators at this point of time do not support that theory. It is essentially an on-board explosion.” The episode has created a dent in the Navy’s current naval capabilities,he added.

INS Sindhurakshak,which had finished 1,000 dived hours,had returned to Indian waters only this April after heavy refurbishment in Russia,and had undergone a process of certification from COMSA-Commodores Commanding Submarine (West Course).

A shocked Navy has now initiated a board of enquiry to be headed by a submarine commodore. It will present its findings within three weeks. “The board will cover the entire spectrum of possibilities,”Admiral Joshi said.

The board will include a naval armament inspectorate member,submarine commodore,electrical officer,engineering officer and a damage-control specialist.

“While fuel,hydrogen,ammunition,explosives are on board,there are also safeties built in and fire and explosions are not meant to happen. There are monitoring mechanisms,there is manual monitoring,there is automatic monitoring,there are automatic drenching arrangements for instances of this nature. But quiet obviously,they have not functioned,” said Joshi.

At the press meet held at the Western Command,Defence Minister A K Antony conveyed the nation’s solidarity and condolence to the Indian Navy. He said,“What happened here last midnight is a shocking tragedy. Navy has already ordered a Board of Inquiry. The Board will go into all details about the incident. I express heartfelt condolences to the families of those sailors who are inside this submarine.”

The primary explosion is believed to have ignited the ordnance kept in the forward torpedo compartment,which resulted in two simultaneous,major explosions,followed by rapid fire,said Joshi. He also confirmed that a second submarine INS Sindhughosh also bore the brunt of the fire and suffered minor damage to its outer casing.

Another submarine,immediately ahead of INS Sindhurakshak,under sailing orders for midnight had cast off minutes before the incident took place. Other Naval assets were taken to safety using cold tugs,soon after the explosions. It took the Navy and the Mumbai Fire Brigade over two hours to contain the fire.

With the water at boiling high till late afternoon on Wednesday,it took a whole day for the divers to reach the vessel and open the main hatch — which until 7 pm remained the only access to the boat. Rescue divers were hampered by the searing heat of the fire.

“The body of submarines is coated with high quality rubber. In the case of Sindhurakshak,this rubber was completely gutted. The temperature was so high that the surrounding water had turned boiling hot. This prevented divers from entering the waters for rescue operations. I saw a few divers who had to retreat simply because the water was too hot,” a government official said.

“While we hope for the best,at the same time we have to be prepared for the worst. The boat has remained submerged,or the compartments concerned have remained flooded for more than 12 hours now commencing from midnight last night,” said Joshi expressing anguish over the life and safety of trapped men.

With the size of the vessel,and a pressure hull,Joshi added the fire’s spread was rapid.

While the fire could be contained soon,rescue efforts were delayed with the vessel filled with muddy water. “The water ingress that took place from the forward end of the submarine from the torpedo compartment where the explosion has occurred as also the water that was used for dousing the fire resulted in simultaneous flooding of the submarine,” said Joshi. The vessel went down bow end first,before settling on the seabed later in the night.

Admitting that all monitoring mechanisms failed to function,Joshi said,“We do not have an answer to that question as of now on what caused the explosion and fire. On any war ship,and it’s more pronounced on a submarine,there are several ingredients that can contribute to or cause a fire. There are explosives and ammunition on board,obviously there is fuel,on board a submarine there are also oxygen bottles,there are battery pits which at times may exude certain portions of hydrogen — any combination of any of these malfunctioning could have resulted in the sequences of the fire”.

The navy ruled out the possibilty of a problem with the vessel’s batteries. “In so far as battery charging and harbour is concerned,all boats are periodically required to charge their batteries in harbour,this boat had completed that activity three days ago. Prima facie a chance hydrogen emission would not appear to be a likelihood,” said Joshi.

The three officers on board were the executive officer,signal communication officer and anti-submarine officer. Their names: Lt Commander Nikhilesh Pal,Vinay Ramakrishnan and Arun Kumar Sahu.

Of the 15 sailors,six were married. While rescue remained the priority,many in the Navy hoped that some sailors had used an airpocket or found a breathing bag.

On questions of sabotage and of foreign vessels including a Chinese and Korean ship having visited the dockyard this year,Joshi said,“Foreign vessels are given due diplomatic clearance only after the security angles have been looked at. There is no point in jumping to hasty conclusions and,like I said,indicators do not support the theory of sabotage.”

Saying that rescue arrangements for a submarine are usually designed for greater depths,an anxious Joshi added,“It’s not envisaged that a submarine would have a unexpected sort of catastrophe of this nature whilst still on site in three metres of water. We will now have to devote our thinking toward this.”

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