Hoping for best but preparing for worst, admits Indian Navy chief

Eighteen crewmembers are feared dead after INS Sindhurakshak, a top-notch submarine, exploded and sank at the city’s naval dockyard yesterday.

Gutted: The deep sea attack vessel, recently refurbished in Russia, had a large stock of ammunition, fuel and oxygen water. Pic/AFP, Ministry Of Defence

Of the 21 crewmembers on board the underwater vessel, three guards on the sub’s surface managed to jump into the sea within seconds after the blast, while 18 others including three officers are trapped within and are still missing.

Challenging times ahead: Rescue ships sail to the spot of the tragedy. Water in and around the area where the submarine sank was hot till the afternoon yesterday, but irrespective of that, naval divers set off on search operations. Pics/Bipin Kokate

The three officers are second commanding officer Nikhilesh Pal, antisubmarine warfare officer Lt Commander P Venkat Raj, and signal communication officer Lt Commander Alok Kumar. Names of the 15 sailors aboard the sub have not been revealed. “We have not been able to touch base with all the families of sailors and efforts are on to contact them,” an officer said, explaining why the navy couldn’t share the names yet. Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi said, “Three of the sailors were on the outer casing of the submarine on guard duty when the incident happened. They sustained minor injuries and are still in a state of shock.”

He continued, “The Navy is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, as we do not have any communication with the remaining officers and sailors who were on board. The main hatch of the submarine is being opened and we are trying to open other hatches, only then our divers can enter inside. We also need to pump out water, so the submarine can resurface.”

Said a senior officer attached to the Western Naval Command, “The entire Western Naval Command and the Navy are still in a state of shock. A disaster on the eve of the country’s 67th Independence Day is unfortunate.”

Incidentally, 37 Navy personnel, who were to be board INS Sindhurakshak, including Commanding Officer Rajesh Ramkumar, had a close brush with disaster as they had not boarded the refurbished submarine when the blast occurred.

Navy to probe blast
State chief secretary Jayant Kumar Banthia, who visited the naval dockyard along with Defence Minister A K Antony, Admiral Joshi and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, told MiD DAY, “We are awaiting a report from the Western Naval Command on the details of the crew and their whereabouts, which would be furnished soon.”

Asked if the local police would have a role in the investigation, Banthia said, “The scene happened inside the defence establishment and hence the entire probe would be done by the Navy-appointed board of inquiry.”

Twin explosions
Chief secretary Banthia said, “We have been informed that the first detonation ignited the fire, followed by a second detonation, which was very strong and loud. The quantum of heat that was generated out of the blaze and blast was evident from the fact that the water in and around the area where the submarine sank was hot till Wednesday afternoon. Irrespective of that, naval divers were conducting search operations.”

“The hurdle at present for the divers is to make entry into the submarine and only after they get in would they be in a position to look for any survivors. Also, the water that has flooded the submarine needs to be pumped out so the submarine can be brought back to the surface,” the chief secretary said.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said, “The state will provide all necessary support to the Navy including illumination support for conducting late-night search operations.”

Fire officer helped prevent another disaster
The alertness and presence of mind shown by a top Mumbai Fire Brigade officer helped avert a second disaster in the naval dockyard. The blast was heard ashore by Deputy Chief Fire Officer PS Rahangdale who was on leave and attending a private engagement near the Gateway of India promenade.

He immediately alerted his superiors as well as the Fire Brigade and other emergency services to rush to the scene of the tragedy. "When I heard the huge explosion on the promenade, I realized that this was something major and I started for the disaster site. When I reached there, the scene was one of utter devastation," said Rahangdale.

Tall flames were leaping from INS Sindhurakshak, making it difficult for rescue teams. At that time, he noticed another submarine berthed barely five-six metres away from INS Sindhurakshak which was breathing fire in all directions. Realising the danger from the leaping flames, Rahandale alerted his fire-figthers and those from the Indian Navy and Mumbai Port Trust to make attempts and save the neighbouring submarine. "From the fire tenders, we built a wall of water-jets between INS Sindhurakshak and the other vessel nearby, thereby giving a safe window to sail it to a safe distance," Rahandale said.

Navy chief speaks
Admiral D K Joshi said, “The submarine had completed 1,000 dive hours and the crew on board was more or less the same.”

Asked if he suspected any sabotage angle to the entire incident, he said, “We cannot rule out sabotage but our preliminary probe is not supporting this theory.” A Board of Inquiry would conduct a detailed probe and submit its findings to the Navy chief in the next four weeks.

Ministers condole tragedy, promise aid
I came here to express my solidarity with the Indian Navy. My heartfelt condolences to the families of sailors and officers who were inside the submarine. All humanly possible help will be extended to them. The Board of Inquiry that has been set up will go into all the details about the incident. I would also like to thank the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Maharashtra government for the quick response in the hour of crisis.
-- Defence Minister A K Antony

Crisis hour: Chief Minister, Navy chief and Defence Minister at a press meet at Tiger Gate yesterday

I express my deep sympathy to the chief of naval staff and personnel in this time of tragedy. The government of Maharashtra is standing by to extend any possible help to the Navy
-- Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan

I was watching a movie on my laptop when I heard a loud noise at around 11:55 pm. The entire sky lit up as if there was some fire show. After that I heard two more blasts within five minutes of each other. The explosion was loud and we could see huge fumes rising from the sea.
- Krishna Harichandra Tandal, an employee at a shipping company and resident of Dariya Sagar Nagar

I was at the Gateway of India when the blast happened. Each one of us thought it might be an earthquake but then there was fire in the sky. Looking at the fire our second guess was it is another terrorist attack and the terrorists have targeted the Gateway now. People started running for their lives, it was only after some time that we realised that the explosion was not an attack but something had happened at the harbour. The flames of fire had covered the entire night sky and the entire Gateway was shining in the light of the blast.
- Tanaji Shivaji Kade, a guide at the Asian Emporium

The fire was so big that it almost enveloped the entire sky. There was a state of panic and everybody started running for their life. The terrorist attack has left a deep fear in the minds of people. Anything remotely dangerous is always related to the attacks.
- Ajay Mistry, resident of Darya Nagar

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