MUMBAI: A diesel-powered Indian submarine exploded and sank on Wednesday in a Mumbai dock, leaving 18 sailors missing and the navy counting the cost of a major setback in its ambitious modernization program.
The fully armed INS Sindhurakshak, returned by Russia in January after a major refit, is nose-down in the water, with just a small part visible above the surface, the navy said.
India’s defense minister described the explosion as the “greatest tragedy in recent time,” saying people were killed in the explosion but gave no further details.
“I feel sad about those navy personnel who have lost their lives in service of the country,” A.K Antony told reporters in New Delhi.
The blast came days after New Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically produced aircraft carrier and the start of sea trials for its first Indian-made nuclear submarine.
Grainy amateur video footage taken by a witness showed the fierce explosion in the forward section of the vessel, which lit up the sky at the naval dockyard shortly after midnight.
“The cause of the explosion is not known. We are searching for the 18 personnel,” navy spokesman Narendra Kumar Vispute told Agence France-Presse.
He said divers had been deployed once the flames were extinguished by fire trucks, which rushed to the scene and battled the blaze for several hours.
“Some sailors and other personnel who were in the vicinity of the submarine have been admitted to INHS Asvini [naval hospital]with injuries,” said navy spokesman PVS Satish.
“Eighteen sailors were on board the submarine, they have not been evacuated yet,” Satish told Agence France-Presse.
The submarine was fully operational and was therefore carrying a “full complement of torpedoes and missiles,” he said.
“This is a huge loss,” Satish added.
In February 2010, the INS Sindhurakshak also suffered a fire while docked in Visakhapatnam city in southern India, killing a 24-year-old sailor and leaving two others with burns.
“There were two to three explosions and the night sky lit up briefly,” said eyewitness Dharmendra Jaiswal, who works in a public toilet near the dockyard and was sleeping there overnight.
“There was a lot of smoke and I thought it was some major repair work,” he told Agence France-Presse.
The explosion did not damage another submarine docked nearby in the yard, a colonial-era facility that employs more than 10,000 people, the navy said.
An inquiry into the cause of the explosion has been ordered amid speculation about what might have caused the fire.
One senior navy officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “needle of suspicion” was on the battery system, but he stressed that these were early assumptions.
Satish confirmed that the fire broke out in the forward section where the battery system and torpedoes are located.
A spokesman for the Russian Zvyozdochka company which overhauled INS Sindhurakshak said that India raised no objections about the vessel when it was returned in January.
Rahul Bedi, a defense expert with IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told Agence France-Presse the submarine was commissioned from Russia in 1997 and lacked some modern safety features common to newer vessels.
“They don’t have escape routes in the event of accidents unlike some of the modern submarines,” he said.
The Navy said it had a total of 14 submarines but only between seven and nine are operational at any point because of regular repair and refitting operations.
Arun Prakash, a former Indian navy chief, said that the “it looks like a pretty massive explosion.”
“There is a possibility that these 18 crewmen may have sealed themselves off in some part of the submarine and they may still have survived,” he told the CNN-IBN news channel.
“Otherwise with this massive explosion chances don’t look very bright,” he added.
India has been expanding its armed forces rapidly to upgrade its mostly Soviet-era weaponry and react to perceived threats from regional rival China.
The Mumbai dockyard, which is a restricted area, was closed to media.
INS Sindhurakshak is a kilo-class submarine which normally operates with a crew of 53 people and can sail on its own for 45 days, the Indian navy website says.