18 sailors killed as Indian navy submarine explodes in Mumbai

Eighteen sailors killed as Russian-built vessel explodes and sinks in a Mumbai naval shipyard

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 11:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 4:30am

India's navy said all 18 sailors on board a submarine which exploded and sank yesterday were feared dead, and admitted the incident left a dent in the country's defences.

The fully armed INS Sindhurakshak, returned by its Russian manufacturer earlier this year after a major refit following a fatal blast in 2010, exploded in flames in Mumbai shortly after midnight and sank in a military shipyard.

The disaster is thought to be the Indian navy's worst since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine in 1971. Defence Minister A.K. Antony described the explosion as the "greatest tragedy in recent times".

"I feel sad about those navy personnel who have lost their lives in service of the country," he said in New Delhi.

Chief of naval staff Admiral D.K. Joshi said no sign of life had been detected on board, even after divers managed to enter through the main hatch in a bid to refloat the vessel. "While we hope for the best, we have to prepare for the worst," he said, adding there was a possibility some crew might be in air pockets.

"It is certainly a dent on the Indian navy's submarine capabilities for the time being."

The blast came days after New Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically produced aircraft carrier and the start of sea trials for the first Indian-made nuclear submarine.

The world's biggest democracy has been expanding its armed forces rapidly to upgrade its mostly Soviet-era weaponry and respond to what is perceived as a growing threat from regional rival China.

Amateur video footage showed a fireball in the forward section of the Sindhurakshak, where torpedoes and missiles are stored as well as the battery units.

"There were two to three explosions and the night sky lit up briefly," said witness Dharmendra Jaiswal.

Joshi said there had been an initial fire which appeared to have sparked a big explosion as weaponry ignited.

"The basic question is what caused the fire and explosion. We do not have an answer to that question as of now," he said.

A board of inquiry would probe all possible explanations including sabotage, but "the indicators at this point in time do not support that theory", he said.

P. S. Rahangdale, an off-duty firefighter who rushed to the scene, told a local television channel that the Sindhurakshak "was totally on fire" and was berthed next to another submarine. "Because of the timely intervention of my team and resources, and the navy's resources, we saved that second submarine," he said.

Other sailors on nearby vessels were admitted to a navy hospital in Mumbai with burns.

In February 2010, the Sindhurakshak caught fire while docked in Visakhapatnam in southern India, killing a sailor, 24, and leaving two others with burns.

A spokesman for the Russian Zvyozdochka company, which overhauled the Kilo-class vessel's weapons, navigation and power generator systems, said India raised no objections about the vessel when it was returned after testing in April.