Fourteen Russian Navy personnel have died in a fire on a deep submersible, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, July 2, in 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,” the defense ministry said.
Fourteen crew members died as a result of poisoning from the fumes of the fire in Russia’s territorial waters, a ministry spokesperson confirmed to AFP.
The fire has been put out, the ministry said, adding an investigation was under way.
“The investigation is being conducted by the commander-in-chief of the navy.”
The defense ministry provided no other details. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta said the fire happened on board an AS-12 Losharik submarine, while RBC reported that it took place in a deep-sea submersible deployed from the submarine.
Novaya Gazeta said the fire killed the entire crew of 25 officers.
The research was conducted to study areas near the seabed and the seabed itself in the interests of the Russian naval fleet, according to the defense ministry.
The vessel is now situated at a military base in the closed northern city of Severomorsk which is located on the Kola Peninsula above the Arctic Circle.
A military expert, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, dismissed 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.
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 criticized for his response.
Moscow also turned down foreign offers of assistance for the rescue effort.
In another accident in 2008, twenty 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.
Update July 2 Later on Tuesday, Putin ordered a full investigation into the tragedy in the far north.
“It is a big loss for the navy, and for the army as a whole,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu in an unplanned meeting in the Kremlin held after the Russian leader canceled 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, noting that 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.
Russian outlet Fontanka reported that all 14 submariners who died on Tuesday were assigned to a Saint Petersburg military unit, the “top secret” division that is called in open sources “the operator of nuclear deep-water stations.”
Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority Director Per Strand told Reuters that Russian officials had informed his agency about a gas explosion on board the submarine, but the Defense Ministry denied this.
With reporting from AFP