Russians To Probe Submarine Accident

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 10, 2008

MOSCOW, Nov. 9 -- Prosecutors opened a negligence probe Sunday into an accident aboard a new, nuclear-powered Russian submarine that killed 20 people, saying the victims appeared to have suffocated after a fire-safety system flooded two sections of the vessel with a gas that displaces oxygen.

A navy spokesman, Capt. Igor Dygalo, said the vessel was not damaged and returned to a Pacific Coast military shipyard on its own power after the accident, which occurred Saturday night during a test run in the Sea of Japan.

But the authorities provided few details of what went wrong, declining to say how the firefighting system was activated and whether personnel aboard had been provided with standard-issue breathing masks.

The incident was Russia's deadliest naval accident since torpedo explosions sank another submarine, the Kursk, in the Barents Sea in 2000, killing all 118 seamen aboard. In the years since, the Kremlin has boosted military spending in a drive to revitalize the Russian armed forces, which suffer from aging equipment, poor training and corruption.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a full investigation into Saturday's accident and pledged aid to families of the victims. His predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, had been criticized for his slow response to the Kursk disaster.

Dygalo said the accident occurred in compartments near the bow of the submarine, far from the nuclear reactor near the stern that powers the vessel. The reactor was operating properly and radiation levels aboard were normal, he said. But the Japanese government expressed concern about the incident, which it said might have taken place near its territorial waters, and formally requested additional information from Moscow.

Revising initial reports of more than 20 fatalities, Dygalo said 17 civilian employees of the submarine manufacturer and three crew members died. Twenty-one others were hospitalized after being evacuated to a destroyer that carried them to shore, he said. The submarine had been carrying 208 people: a naval crew of 81 plus 127 civilian shipbuilders.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's top investigative agency, said a preliminary investigation showed that the firefighting system released Freon gas into the submarine and that traces were found in the victims' lungs. The gas, which is colorless and nearly odorless, is used to suppress fires by displacing oxygen needed for combustion.

A siren on the submarine should have sounded when the fire-extinguishing system was activated, experts said, and all aboard should have been equipped with portable breathing devices on their belts and put them on. "You can assume that the submariners didn't notice the gas, and when they did, it was too late," an unnamed senior naval official was quoted as saying by the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency.

Analysts said the incident was the latest in a string of fatal accidents in the Russian navy and may point to broader problems with training in the submarine fleet and the submarine-building industry. In September 2006, two crew members on a Russian submarine died of carbon monoxide poisoning after their breathing equipment failed when a small fire broke out onboard. A year earlier, the British navy rescued seven Russian seamen trapped in a mini-submarine that sank off Russia's Pacific coast.

The navy declined to name or describe the submarine on which the accident occurred, but RIA-Novosti identified it as the Nerpa, an Akula II class attack submarine built by the Amur Shipbuilding Enterprise. Construction of the vessel began in 1991 but was suspended for more than a decade because of a lack of funding, the news agency said. Testing on the submarine began last month, and it submerged for the first time Oct. 27 in widely publicized sea trials.

News outlets in India have reported that construction of the vessel was financed in part by the Indian government, which reportedly planned to pay $650 million to lease it for 10 years. Russian defense officials have denied the reports and said the submarine is scheduled to be commissioned in the Russian navy this year.

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