In the biggest peacetime disaster to hit the Indian Navy, its Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhurakshak docked off the Mumbai coast sank Tuesday night after two massive blasts set off a raging fire. All 18 crew on board, including the warship’s second-in-command, are feared dead.
The incident at the naval dockyard came seven months after the Sindhurakshak (defender of the seas) returned from Russia after a mid-life upgrade. The INS Sindhuratna berthed alongside had a narrow escape as the blaze spread and it took firefighters nearly two hours to contain it.
“There were two explosions, almost simultaneously, in the ship’s aft (rear) area, followed by rapid spread of fire,” said navy chief Admiral DK Joshi.
“There are several ingredients onboard a submarine that can cause fire — ammunition, oxygen bottles, batteries and gases like hydrogen. We will be able to determine the exact cause only after forensic analysis.”
Experts, however, said there was high possibility of the explosion being triggered by a build-up of hydrogen generated during battery charging.
Vice-admiral AK Singh (retd), who headed the navy’s submarine arm in the late 1990s, said, “A spark can cause an explosion if there’s high build-up of hydrogen during charging.”
He said the fire could have engulfed the weapons compartment and caused the explosions. The other possibility, he added, was violation of standard operating procedures while arming the warship with weapons.
Apart from the 18 on a night shift, three naval personnel were outside the submarine and suffered minor injuries. The rest of the crew was ashore, navy officials said.
Calling the incident the “greatest tragedy in recent time”, defence minister AK Antony said, “I feel sad about those navy personnel who lost their lives in service to the country. We will extend all possible assistance to their family members.”
He has constituted a board of inquiry to go into the cause of the explosions.
Admiral Joshi said no sign of life had been detected even after divers managed to open the ship’s main hatch. “While we hope for the best, we have to prepare for the worst.”
One of the immediate fallouts could be a possible suspension of operations for the remaining nine Kilo-class submarines till the time it is established what went wrong, navy sources told HT. The skipper of the submarine is also likely to be removed from command.
“It (the incident) is certainly a dent on the Indian Navy's submarine capabilities for the time being,” the navy chief said.
The disaster — the navy’s worst since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine in 1971 — came days after Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically-produced aircraft carrier Vikrant and the nuclear reactor on its first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant attained criticality.