MOSCOW: Fourteen Russian seamen have died in a fire on a deep-water research submersible, Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday, the latest in a string of disasters and accidents to hit the country’s navy.
The tragedy in the far north has echoes of the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000 that claimed the lives of 118 personnel and shook the first year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.
“On July 1, a fire broke out during bathymetric measurements on a scientific research deep-sea submersible,” a defence ministry spokeswoman said.
Fourteen crew died as a result of poisoning from the fumes of the fire in Russia’s territorial waters, the spokeswoman said.
The fire has been put out, the ministry said, adding that an investigation was under way.
“The investigation is being conducted by the commander-in-chief of the navy.” The vessel was conducting research on areas near the seabed and the seabed itself in Russian waters in the interests of the Russian naval fleet, the ministry said.
The vessel is now at a military base in the closed northern city of Severomorsk which is located on the Kola Peninsula above the Arctic Circle. The defence ministry provided no other details.
Putin is planning to meet with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu soon, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters.
In a terse statement, the Investigative Committee — which reports directly to Putin — said it was conducting a “pre-investigation probe”.
A military expert rubbished claims that the fire happened during scientific research.
“Usually it’s a cover for different type of work conducted on the seabed” like laying cables, the expert said.
The RBC business newspaper, citing a source in law enforcement agencies, said the accident took place on a submersible deployed from the AS-12 nuclear submarine known as Losharik.
Losharik is the name of a character in a Soviet-era cartoon — a winsome little toy horse made of balloons.
The Novaya Gazeta independent newspaper said, citing sources, that the fire took place aboard the AS-12 submarine, killing the entire crew which was entirely comprised of officers.
The fire took place in one of the submarine’s compartments, Novaya Gazeta said.
Little is known about the AS-12 mini nuclear submarine.
It was launched in 2003 and is designated for research, rescue and special military operations. Russia has seen a number of such accidents in the post-Soviet period.
In August 2000, the Kursk submarine sunk in the Barents Sea with the loss of all 118 aboard.
An inquiry found that a torpedo had exploded, detonating all the others.
Putin, who stayed on holiday for several days after the disaster, was severely criticised for his response.
Moscow also controversially turned down foreign offers of assistance for the rescue effort.
In another accident in 2008, 20 people — three naval officers and 17 civilians — were killed by poison gas after a vessel’s fire-extinguishing system was accidentally activated during trials in the Sea of Japan.
In 2011, one of Russia’s biggest nuclear submarines caught fire while undergoing repairs in dock in the northern Murmansk region.
Later it was reported the sub was armed with long-range nuclear missiles when it caught fire.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd , 2019