MUMBAI: Two Indian naval officers were found dead Thursday after they went missing in a submarine fire off Mumbai’s coast, the latest in a string of accidents that have forced the navy’s chief to quit.
Seven other crew members were airlifted to hospital with breathing problems after smoke began to fill the vessel’s living quarters on Wednesday, an accident that comes only six months after another deadly submarine disaster in Mumbai.
“The two officers who were earlier declared missing have been located in the (submarine) compartment and after examination by Medical Officers both the officers were declared dead,” said an emailed statement from the defence ministry.
Admiral DK Joshi, the chief of naval staff, announced Wednesday night he was standing down to take “moral responsibility” for the accident on board the Russian-built INS Sindhuratna during exercises.
Last August, 18 sailors were killed when the fully-armed submarine INS Sindhurakshak exploded in flames and sank in a military shipyard in Mumbai.
That disaster was thought to be the Indian Navy’s worst since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine during a war with its neighbour in 1971. Various other naval accidents reported in recent months included a submarine running aground in Mumbai’s harbour, fires on a minesweeping vessel and an aircraft carrier, and a collision between a frigate and a fishing boat. The Indian navy has 14 submarines, but only between seven and nine are operational at any one time because of regular repair and refitting. Defence experts say the navy has an ageing fleet and has struggled with delays in the acquisition of new submarines and poor servicing.
Defence Minister AK Antony told reporters on Thursday that outgoing chief Joshi was “pretty much disturbed about the whole development”.
“He requested me to take his resignation with immediate effects,” Antony said.
While a full inquiry is expected to determine the exact cause of the latest accident, the navy said it appeared to have been due to sparks in a sleeping cabin.
According to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency, smoke filled a compartment and triggered emergency measures, such as the closure of hatches which isolate sections of the submarine. The missing pair “might have been left in the cabin or at some other place as various cabins and compartments are isolated as part of the emergency measures”, PTI quoted an unnamed navy officer as saying on Wednesday.
The stricken submarine docked in Mumbai on Thursday morning, allowing the navy to ventilate the vessel and step up their search for the missing pair.
INS Sindhuratna is a kilo-class submarine which normally operates with a crew of 53 and can sail on its own for 45 days, the navy’s website says.
The submarine had only been handed back to the navy in December after undergoing a major refit, according to local reports.
It had been undergoing trials off the Mumbai coast as part of a clearance process for full operations when the incident occurred.
Russia is still the biggest military supplier to India, but relations have been strained by major delays and cost overruns with a refurbished aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya.
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