MOSCOW: Fourteen Russian seamen have died in a fire on a deep-water research submersible, Russia’s defence ministry said Tuesday, the latest in a string of disasters and accidents to hit the country’s navy.
President Vladimir Putin ordered a full investigation into the tragedy in the far north, which has echoes of the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000 that claimed the lives of 118 personnel and shook the first year of his presidency.
Officials gave little information about the vessel or the circumstances of the accident, but presence of many senior ranking officers on board suggests it wasn’t an ordinary assignment.
“It is a big loss for the navy, and for the army as a whole,” Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in an unplanned meeting in the Kremlin held after the Russian leader cancelled plans to attend a forum in another region.
“It is not an ordinary vessel, as we know, it’s a scientific-research vessel, its crew is highly professional,” Putin said.
He said the victims included seven Captain First Rank officers — the most senior staff officers in the Russian navy — and two have been awarded Hero of Russia, a top title given out by the president.
The defence ministry earlier said that “On July 1, a fire broke out during bathymetric measurements on a scientific research deep-sea submersible” in Russia’s territorial waters, and 14 died by inhaling poisonous fumes.
Bathymetric measurements are studies of sea floor terrain, usually with a sonar.
The fire has been put out and 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.
In a terse statement, the Investigative Committee – which reports directly to Putin – said it was conducting a “pre-investigation probe”.
Putin ordered Shoigu to travel to Severomorsk to direct the probe and report back.
A military expert, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, 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.
Novaya Gazeta newspaper cited sources as saying that the accident took place on a submersible called AS-12, also known as Losharik, a small nuclear-powered submarine capable of going to extreme depths.
Losharik is the name of a character in a Soviet-era cartoon – a winsome little toy horse made of balloons. 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 sank 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.