Indian navy divers have entered a crippled submarine hit by twin explosions, but have yet to reach any of the 18 sailors who are feared dead inside the vessel, a naval official said yesterday.
The Russian-built submarine had also been damaged in a deadly explosion in 2010 and had only recently returned to service.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was deeply pained by the deaths in Wednesday’s explosion and fire.
“Eighteen brave sailors are feared to have lost their lives,” he said in brief comments yesterday during a speech to mark the anniversary of India’s 1947 independence from Britain. “We pay homage to these brave hearts we have lost.”
The navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said water was being pumped from the flooded, diesel-powered submarine so it could be raised completely to the surface.
It is currently partially submerged at a dock in a Mumbai navy base, with a portion visible above the waterline.
He said there had been no contact with the sailors since the explosions, which lit up the sky above the base.
The official said there appeared to be no way the sailors could have survived the intensity of the blasts and fire.
“We hope for the best, but we have to prepare for the worst,” Admiral D.K. Joshi, the navy chief, told reporters on Wednesday in Mumbai.
The explosions in the submarine’s torpedo compartment sent a huge fireball into the air and sent nearby sailors jumping into the sea in panic. It is shaping up to be another embarrassment for India’s military, which has been hit with a corruption scandal as it races to modernize its forces.
Retired navy vice admiral S.C.S. Bangara said the chances of survival of the trapped sailors appeared to be remote.
“There would have been signs of life through tapping of the hull by the sailors, which is a known procedure for the rescue of sunken submarines,” he said.
Because the submarine was docked, navy watchmen were on the submarine rather than the normal crew, Joshi said.
At least some weaponry exploded in the near-simultaneous blasts, he added.
A video of the explosions filmed by bystanders showed an enormous ball of red and yellow fire rising hundreds of feet into the air. About a dozen fire engines rushed to the dockyard and extinguished the fire in about two hours, officials said.
Navy spokesman Narendra Vispute said the cause of the explosions was being investigated.
The 16-year-old Russian-made submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak, was hit by an explosion in 2010 that killed one sailor and injured two others. The navy said that accident was caused by a faulty battery valve that leaked hydrogen, causing an explosion in the vessel’s battery compartment.
The sub recently returned from Russia after a two-year refit, overhaul and upgrade, said Rahul Bedi, an analyst for the independent Jane’s Information Group.
Joshi said it returned to India in April, and had been certified for use by the Indian navy.
Russian ship repair company Zvyozdochka said the blasts were unrelated to its repair work.
“According to the members of our warranty group, the vessel was functioning properly and had no technical faults at the time of the incident,” the Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified company representative as saying.
Zvyozdochka said the submarine had been “in active use” and had logged 24,000km on three missions.
Wednesday’s accident came at a time when India is facing a shortage of submarines because of obsolescence, Bedi said.
The government has authorized the navy to have up to 24 conventional submarines, but it has just 14, including eight Russian Kilo-class and four German Type HDW209 boats. Bedi said five of those will be retired by next year or 2015.