Leaking gas from batteries might have triggered fire aboard ageing submarine: naval sources

Leaking hydrogen from batteries stored in the forward compartment of the INS Sindhuratna might have set off Wednesday’s fire which claimed the lives of two naval officers and injured seven, highly-placed naval sources told The Hindu. Sailors in the forward compartment battled the flames even while inhaling freon, a fire-retardant gas, from the ship’s automatic fire-fighting system, the sources said.

The two officers killed, the sources said, could not be evacuated in time when the compartment was sealed off to prevent the blaze from spreading.

Seaking helicopters were scrambled from Mumbai to evacuate injured crew. The seven sailors, who inhaled toxic gas, are now being treated at INS Aswini, the naval hospital in Mumbai.

“Even as the Navy must be asked hard questions about how this tragedy happened, I think we should salute the courage of the sailors involved, who potentially averted a far larger tragedy,” said maritime expert and former naval officer commodore C. Uday Bhaskar

In November 2008, the accidental discharge of Freon gas in an Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine killed 20 Russian sailors and injured 41 others. That submarine, interestingly, now serves in the Indian fleet, renamed INS Chakra.

Part of a series of Kilo-class submarines purchased from the Soviet Union, Sindhuratna was commissioned into the Navy in 1988, and was originally intended to have been phased out in 2013.

However, delays in the modernisation programme had led the Navy to first cut back its operational hours, and then engage in a refit intended to extend the submarine’s seaworthiness.

In a report released last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General warned that “The Navy currently holds just 67% of the force level envisaged in its 1985 [maritime expansion] plan.” Privately, naval officials say the submarine fleet functions at just 40 per cent of its operational need.

India had commissioned a production line for German-designed U-209 submarines, also known as the Shishumar class, anticipating the ageing of its Kilo-class submarines. However, the line was closed down after the construction of INS Shishumar in 1994, after a scandal over alleged payoffs.

Though hulls have been laid for six French-designed Scorpene submarines, production delays mean it will be several years before the first vessel becomes available for service. France last year threatened to withdraw from the project, pointing to multiple delays since the agreement was signed in 2005.