DEFECTIVE anti-tank mines leaking TNT, a powerful explosive material, and stored for the last nine years in a shed at the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) in Pulgaon may have triggered the explosion during a fire last Tuesday that killed 19 people, including two Army officers, highly placed sources told The Indian Express.
The faulty mines were stored at the depot despite the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) warning in a report last year that 102,805 anti-tank mines, worth Rs 47.29 crore and rejected due to manufacturing defects, were stored in the 16 ammunition depots across the country.
On the day of the fire in Pulgaon, the defective ammunition that triggered the blast was earmarked as “segregated” and kept separately in Shed 192 that stored a total of 22,000 ND Mark-1 anti-tank mines weighing 330 metric tonnes (MT), said sources. The cause of the fire, which is believed to have started at this shed, is being probed by the Army.
“These ND Mark-1 mines had been reported for TNT ‘exudation’, which means TNT was leaking out from these mines. The mines, in such cases, become very sensitive to very high temperature,” a senior military official linked to the probe told The Indian Express on condition of anonymity.
“TNT is a high explosive unlike gunpowder, which is a low explosive. High explosive does not detonate due to fire, but it happened in this case. The team clearly didn’t expect it. It was the sympathetic blast that led to the massive explosion and heavy casualties,” an ammunition expert told The Indian Express on condition of anonymity. A sympathetic blast is one that is triggered by the first explosion.
“In spite of CAD Pulgaon regularly taking up the case with Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) to pick up the defective ammunition for repair, they failed to do so,” the senior official said.
Key finding No 4 of the CAG’s performance audit report No 19 of 2015, on Ammunition Management in Army for the year ended March 2013, states: “Even the products accepted by QA (Quality Assurance) were not found up to the mark and due to persistent quality problems, ammunition worth Rs 1,618 crore was lying as rejected in depots. Ammunition worth Rs 814 crore was declared unserviceable within shelf life by the depots due to poor quality.”
Para 5.2.2 of the report also includes a table that specifies the number of anti-tank mines rejected but still being stored in depots.
Officials from the Defence Ministry in Delhi did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment. The OFB in Kolkata said that it would seek a response from its concerned division and provide a detailed reply subsequently.
Sources said that Shed No 192, measuring 36mx18m, had a total capacity of 450 MT. Each ND Mark-1 anti-tank mine contains 6.35 kg of TNT, with norms stipulating that the activation fuse is stored separately within the same box. On the day of the accident, the Pulgaon facility held 59,512 MT of ammunition against an authorised capacity of 65,179 MT.
“In all the accidents in ammunition depots, this is the first time we were able to restrict the fire to one shelter. There were eight shelters next to this shed holding artillery ammunition. If the fire had spread, the disaster would have been beyond anyone’s imagination,” said the senior official.
The official said that all 19 deaths occurred during attempts to douse the fire. Lt Colonel R S Pawar, who died fighting the blaze, and his team had employed 11 fire-fighting trucks and 137 smaller water trucks to extinguish the fire and prevent it from spreading to other shelters, he said. Major K Manoj Kumar was the other officer killed in the fire.
Sources said Army officials who are part of the court of inquiry have so far refused to rule out any reason, including sabotage, as the cause of the fire. They added that two Major Generals from the Army headquarters were also at Pulgaon to oversee stocktaking and repair efforts.
Sources said that CAD Pulgaon, with a 26-km perimeter, houses 299 storage sheds inside various sub-depots — shed No 192 was located in the Delta sub-depot. The depots are governed by UN safety regulations.