Eighteen sailors,including three officers,were feared dead when multiple explosions ripped through the torpedo compartment of one of India’s mainstay kilo-class submarines berthed at Naval Dockyard at Colaba around midnight on Tuesday.
Submarine 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.
The explosion was likely an accident but an investigation was under way to establish the cause,the Navy said.
Calling it a “catastrophe,” Navy Chief Admiral D K Joshi,who reached Mumbai in the afternoon,said that there were “two rapid and near simultaneous major explosions on board the submarine which resulted in a major rapid spread of fire on board”.
The vessel then submerged under three meters of water,with the bow going down first. “It took around two hours to douse the fire. In the process 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.
INS Sindhurakshak had experienced a fire incident while berthed in Vizag in 2010 in which one sailor was killed and two others injured. After that,the submarine was sent for a Rs 815-crore refurbishment to Russia and had just returned with a fresh longevity of 15 years.
Last night’s explosions were so severe that the main hatch,as well as an escape hatch at the rear of the submarine that was initially above water,could not be opened as the metal structure buckled under the catastrophic pressure. Divers could not even approach the submarine for two to three hours due to the extreme heat that it was generating. The hatch was only forced open late this evening with divers entering the flooded compartments.
A second submarine of the same kilo-class,docked in the vicinity of the ill-fate INS Sindhurakshak,had a close shave as flames threatened to spread rapidly. In fact,some debris from the Sindhurakshak did fall close to the second submarine but a massive effort ensured it was moved away quickly.
According to officials,a “water wall” was created between Sindhurakshak and the second submarine by using many fire tenders together. This helped halt the fire from spreading quickly and allowed time for second submarine to be navigated to safety. Only minor damage to its casing has been reported.
While senior officials ruled out sabotage,the one possible reason being speculated was the build-up of excessive hydrogen during the charging of batteries that sparked off some combustion which resulted in a fire that spread to the torpedo compartment,setting off one of the missiles minus the warheads.
However,this plausible cause came under doubt once it was discovered that the charging cycle of the submarine’s 500 batteries was completed three days ago. At the time of the incident,the ammunition had just been loaded and the submarine was being prepared to depart early morning on a routine exercise.
Admiral Joshi confirmed that the warship was in “full outfit” (ordinance),and had completed 1,000 dived hours this year. The Navy has set up a board of inquiry to investigate the causes behind India’s worst naval disaster.
“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 condolence to the families of those sailors who are inside this submarine,” Defence Minster AK Antony who also reached Mumbai by late afternoon said.