Mumbai: In one of the worst disasters to have struck the Indian Navy, a series of explosions rocked its submarine INS Sindhurakshak at the dockyard here around midnight, sinking it partially in the shallow sea, in which 18 personnel including three officers are feared killed.
A smaller intensity explosion was followed by two massive blasts, causing a major fire in the Russian-made submarine, Admiral D K Joshi, Chief of Naval Staff told reporters after visiting the dockyard in Colaba.
Joshi, who accompanied Defence Minister A K Antony, did not rule out the possibility of a sabotage but said, "Indications so far do not support such a theory."
The diesel-electric submarine was commissioned into the Indian Navy in 1997 at a cost of around Rs 400 crore and had gone through a Rs 450-crore extensive upgrade in Russia under a contract signed in 2010.
The warship rejoined the navy on April 29, this year. It was fully armed at the time of the mishap, navy sources said.
With the 18 navy personnel still missing nearly 17 hours after the mishap, Joshi said, "While we can hope for the best, we have to be prepared for the worst.
"Miracles do happen. There might be air-pockets (to aid their survival). We know that so much time has gone by," he said.
Joshi said three other personnel who were on board the vessel but not inside, jumped to safety but were too shocked to make a statement.
A board of inquiry has been constituted to probe the reason behind the blasts and it is expected to submit its report within four weeks, he said.
Divers from the navy, Joshi said, have been able to cut through the vessel, as all hatches had fused due to the fire, and were looking for the missing personnel, but without any success so far.
Asked what could have triggered the fire, Joshi said only a board of inquiry would be able to conclusively pin- point the cause of the blaze as there are "many ingredients present" on a submarine to cause such an incident.
Defence Minister Antony expressed his "solidarity and condolence" to the navy and the families of the sailors who lost their lives in the "shocking tragedy".
"I offer heart-felt condolences to the families of the sailors who were inside the submarine. We will extend all help to them," Antony said, without taking any questions and left the venue of the press conference, leaving it to the navy chief to answer queries from the media.
"A board of inquiry has been ordered which will bring out all the details," he said.
The midnight explosions could be heard in a radius of two kilometres from the naval dockyard and amateur videos taken with cell phone cameras showed fireballs lighting up the night sky in Colaba.
The 2300-tonne Kilo class submarine, powered by a combination of diesel generators and electric batteries, which had returned after a major refurbishing in Russia, had a potent weapons package including the anti-ship 'Club' missiles.
The navy chief said it had recently been certified for safety. The mishap has come at a time when the Navy is faced with a depleting submarine fleet.
Before leaving for Mumbai, Antony had briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the incident.
In 2010, a fire broke out on board Sindhurakshak leaving a sailor dead and two others injured. That mishap was caused by an explosion in its battery compartment.
India had bought the submarine from Russia as part of a deal in the early 1980s and the warship was commissioned in 1997. It was the ninth of the 10 'Sindhugosh' class diesel- electric vessels that the Navy has in its 16-strong submarine fleet.
A second submarine, also berthed at the dockyard, escaped any major harm after the fire engulfed INS Sindhurakshak, Mumbai fire brigade sources said.
Deputy Chief Fire Officer P S Rahandale said he saw one submarine was engulfed in fire while another submarine, which was about 10 to 15 feet away, was "partially" on fire.
Rahandale said his team of firemen and Navy's Fire Brigade personnel immediately "attacked" the flames that were near the second sub.
From the dozens of fire tenders, a wall of high pressure stream of water was built between Sindhurakshak and the second sub with the help of eight to nine water cannons. The second submarine was then moved to a safe place.
Naval chief Joshi said the flames that leapt from the sinking vessel touched the outer casing of the second sub, also a Sindhughosh-class submarine like Sindhurakshak.
There was no damage to the second sub, he said, adding the vessel was quickly taken to safety.