All 18 sailors on board a submarine which exploded and sank on Wednesday are feared dead,Indian navy said. It also admitted that the incident had left a "dent" in the country's defences.
The blast and fire on INS Sindhurakshak — a kilo class submarine that had undergone a major refit at Russia’s Zvezdochka shipyard — is Indian Navy’s worst-ever tragedy.
“I am saddened at the loss of life of naval personnel ,” said defence minister AK Antony outside the Parliament in New Delhi.
Among the 18 trapped submariners are three officers. Those injured because of the explosion were taken to INHS Ashwini hospital where they are undergoing treatment.
“There are some people who are trapped on board, we are in the process of trying to rescue them,” said navy spokesman PVS Satish. “We will not give up until we get to them.”
"While we hope for the best, we have to prepare for the worst," navy chief admiral DK Joshi told reporters in Mumbai, adding that there was a possibility some crew might have found air pockets but "the indicators are negative".
Fire tenders from the dockyard as well as Mumbai, along with a team of naval experts, are carrying out rescue operations.
INS Sindhurakshak was 15 to 20 metres away from the jetty in the sea when the incident took place.
A naval release said due to as yet unknown damage suffered as a result of the explosion, the submarine has submerged at her berth with only a portion visible above the surface.
A board of inquiry was being instituted to investigate into the causes of the explosion just after midnight, which was likely an accident, the Navy said.
The incident, the worst ever for the Navy’s sub-surface arm, raised memories of the explosion on the Russian nuclear attack submarine Kursk which sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in 2000, killing all 118 crew members.
Typically, such a submarine is fitted with torpedoes and missiles. Torpedoes are launched underwater to attack other submarines while missiles are used for long ranges above water.
There was no immediate word on the status of the weapons on board the Sindhurakshak.
“Lot of things are in very close proximity, there is fuel, there is hydrogen, there is oxygen, there are weapons with high explosives on board,” said retired Indian Navy chief Arun Prakash.
“So a slightest mistake or slightest accident can trigger off a huge accident. The question of sabotage — I mean, all possibilities have to be considered - but sabotage is the probably the last possibility.”
This is not the first time that an incident has happened aboard Sidhurakshak: there was a similar explosion when the warship was docked in Visakhapatnam in February 2010 which killed a crew member was left two injured.
Earlier this year, when INS Sindhurakshak was on its way back to India, after taking the delivery from Russia in January 2013, it ran into rough weather near Egypt.
A distress call in May 2013 had then seen the Egyptian Navy tow the submarine to its dockyard, where repairs had to be undertaken.
Armed with latest multi-role missile system, radar and electronics, the submarine was to be the backbone of the Indian Navy.
Especially because the submarine had undergone an $80 million dollar refit that saw the submarine’s hull being overhauled, installation of upgraded electronic warfare and weapons control systems, mounting of Indian-made sonar USHUS and radio communication systems.
But naval experts believed the submarine to act as a game changer because the vessel was fitted with the Club-S multi-role missile system capable of eliminating targets at a distance of over 250km.
The submarine was under consideration to be equipped with the Brahmos cruise missiles.
INS Sindhurakshak, a Type 877EKM in Russia, was constructed at St Petersburg in 1997.
The submarine was designed to patrol and to protect naval communications, assault warships, enemy submarines, land targets and perform naval reconnaissance.
What is a Kilo class submarine?
It is one of the quietest diesel-electric submarines in the world mainly intended for anti-ship and anti-submarine operations.
These submarines have a displacement of 3,000 tonnes, a maximum diving depth of 300m, top speed of 18 knots, and are able to operate for 45 days without refuelling.
Ten kilo-class submarines were constructed in Russia’s shipyards for the Indian Navy from 1985-2000.