NEW DELHI, Aug. 14 (Xinhua) -- In one of the worst-ever naval disasters, India lost a submarine and 18 of its sailors who were on board the Russia-made vessel when it was gutted in a fire triggered by multiple explosions and sank at Mumbai's naval dockyard in the early hours of Wednesday.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, who is in Mumbai along with Indian Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi, has expressed his condolences to the families of the 18 personnel who died on board INS Sindhurakshak.
"I extend all humanly possible assistance to members of the sailors' family," he said.
Defense sources said that the explosion took place soon after midnight on board the Indian Navy's newly modified INS Sindhurakshak submarine docked at the high-security naval dockyard in Mumbai.
"Though the fire which was triggered by the explosion was doused at 3 a.m. (local time), the vessel was gutted in the fire and sank into the sea. INS Sindhuratna, another submarine berthed nearby, also got damaged in the explosion," they said.
The 18 sailors trapped inside the submarine were charred to death in the fire as they got no time to react to the mishap while three others who were on the outer casing managed to jump off the vessel, the sources said, adding that the three have been admitted to a floating naval hospital with minor injuries.
Local TV channels showed footage of the submarine in flames even as half of Mumbai's skyline was covered with a thick blanket of smoke billowing out of the 2,300 tonne vessel powered by a combination of diesel generators and electric batteries.
The submarine tragedy also came up in Indian Parliament, with lawmakers demanding a statement from the government. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Shukla told the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House) that a statement would be made after the defense minister came back from Mumbai.
The Indian Navy has ordered a high level probe into the incident, which took place a day before India's Independence Day and only two days after India launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier, hailed as a "crowning glory" by naval officials.
"We have appointed a board of inquiry. We cannot rule out sabotage," the Indian Navy chief said.
The sources, however, said that the submarine was fully loaded when the explosion took place in the weapons' bay and the fire could have resulted due to the detonation of torpedoes or missiles aboard the vessel which was not on active duty at the time of the incident.
A similar explosion in the same submarine in 2010 claimed the life of one sailor. The vessel was at the time berthed at Visakhapatnam port in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
In fact, this 16-year-old INS Sindhurakshak is one of the 10 Kilo class submarines bought from Russia and is equipped with the Russian Club-S cruise missile system. India had three months back spent some 80 million U.S. dollars to upgrade it in Russia and it' s expected to serve Indian Navy for 10 more years.
Defense experts say that India is now left with only nine other submarines in this class, a number which is not enough to become a dominant sea power in the region even though the country is likely to acquire two more aircraft carriers in the years to come.