Russia investigates sub disaster
jjenet | November 10, 2008 at 04:12 amby
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Another 21 people were left ill in what officials believe was an "unsanctioned" activation of an automatic firefighting system that released toxic freon gas.
Experts speculated that the presence of many civilians aboard during sea trials may have elevated the death toll.
But this has not been confirmed by officials investigating the accident.
The accident on the Nerpa, or Akula-class, attack vessel occurred during trials in the Sea of Japan.
Three seamen were among those killed in the accident, which happened in the nose of the submarine, officials said.
But the nuclear reactor, which is in the stern, was not affected and there was no radiation leak, Russian Pacific Fleet spokesman Igor Dygalo said.
The submarine is due to be leased to India, and Indian naval personnel were due to travel to Vladivostok earlier this month to train on board the submarine ahead of its transfer, according to the website Indian Defence.
Preliminary results suggested that the "unsanctioned activation" of the firefighting system caused the tragedy, Russian investigators said on Monday.
However, they said that it was still unclear what triggered the system. The submarine had 208 people aboard, 81 of whom were servicemen.
However, a vessel of this type usually carries only 73 people, Russian expert Ruslan Pukhov was quoted as saying by the Ekho Moskvy radio.
Several former Russian mariners have suggested that overcrowding and inexperience of the civilian personnel - engineers and shipyard workers - in dealing with the breathing apparatus may have elevated the death toll.
"I cannot exclude that among those civilians who found themselves on board, not everyone had the equipment and that those who did may not have known how to use it," former navy captain Gennady Illarionov was quoted as saying by Russia's Ria Novosti news agency.
Some reports in the Russian media also say that a siren warning may have failed when the firefighting system activated.
Freon gas removes oxygen from the air - to put out the fire - but if anyone is still trapped inside that area, they face suffocation.
Russia's worst submarine disaster happened in August 2000, when the nuclear-powered Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. All 118 people on board died.
The then president, Vladimir Putin, was criticised for being slow to react to the incident and reluctant to call in foreign assistance.
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