MUMBAI August 14- A diesel powered Indian submarine exploded and sank Wednesday in a Mumbai dock, killing an unknown number of 18 crewmen on board and setting back the navy’s ambitious modernisation drive.
The fully-armed INS Sindhurakshak, returned by Russia earlier this year after a major refit, is nose down in the water, with just a small part visible above the surface, the navy said.
The disaster is thought to be the worst for the Indian navy since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine in 1971 and India’s defence minister described the explosion as the “greatest tragedy in recent time”.
“I feel sad about those navy personnel who have lost their lives in service of the country,” Defence Minister A.K. Antony told reporters in New Delhi without saying how many had died.
The blast came days after New Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically produced aircraft carrier and the start of sea trials for its first Indian made nuclear submarine.
The world’s biggest democracy has been expanding its armed forces rapidly to upgrade its mostly Soviet era weaponry and react to what is perceived as a growing threat from regional rival China.
Grainy amateur video footage taken by a witness showed a fireball in the forward section of the Russian made INS Sindhurakshak where torpedoes and missiles are stored as well as the battery units.
“There were two to three explosions and the night sky lit up briefly,” said eyewitness Dharmendra Jaiswal, who works in a public toilet near the dockyard and was sleeping there overnight.
“There was a lot of smoke and I thought it was some major repair work,” he told AFP near the scene of the disaster on the southern tip of the Mumbai peninsula.
P.S. Rahangdale, an off duty firefighter who rushed to the scene, told a local television channel that the INS Sindhurakshak “was totally on fire” and was berthed next to another submarine.
“Because of timely intervention of my team and resources and navy’s resources we could save that second submarine,” he said.
The navy stressed that the cause of the explosion was not known and divers were working to enter the stricken hull of the vessel, which is resting on its nose on the seabed eight metres (26 feet) down.