14 Russian sailors killed in submarine fire

A fire on one of the Russian navy’s deep-sea submersibles killed 14 sailors, the Russian Defence Ministry said Tuesday without giving the cause of the blaze or saying if there were survivors.

The ministry didn’t name the vessel that caught fire Monday. Russian media reported it was Russia’s most secret submarine, a nuclear-powered vessel designed for sensitive missions at great ocean depths.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that the fire broke out while the submersible was measuring sea depths in Russia’s territorial waters and the vessel was at the Arctic port of Severomorsk, the main base of Russia’s Northern Fleet, Tuesday. An investigation was underway, it said.

The ministry said the fire was put out due to the self-sacrifice of crew members. It didn’t say how many people were on board the submersible.

“This is a great loss for the navy,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised meeting with his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.

“We express our deepest condolences to the families of those who died. We will do everything we can to support them.”

Putin cancelled a public engagement on Tuesday afternoon to deal with the accident, and told Shoigu to fly to Severomorsk, where the submarine is now located, to find out what went wrong, and then report back to him.

Putin said that of the 14 dead, seven held the rank of captain, first class, and two held the Hero of Russia, the highest military award issued in the post-Second World War period.

“This is not a regular vessel, as we know, it’s a scientific research vessel. It’s a highly professional crew,” he said.

Putin, left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu meet in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss a recent accident on board a Russian deep-sea submersible, which caught fire Monday in the area of the Barents Sea. (Sputnik/Alexey Druzhinin/Kremlin/Reuters)

Norwegian officials said they had been in touch with their Russian counterparts but had not been able to establish the type of vessel.

“We have made checks and we are not monitoring too high radiation levels in the area,” Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, told Reuters.

He said Russian officials had told his agency that a gas explosion took place on board the submarine.

Advanced and obscure

The Russian Defence Ministry’s statement said the submersible is intended for studying the seabed, but didn’t give its name or type. Russia’s RBC online news outlet reported it was the nuclear-powered AS-12 Losharik. 

The Losharik, which entered service in 2010, is the most advanced and most obscure Russian submarine. It’s named after a Soviet-era cartoon character, a toy horse made of small spheres.

The name is apparently explained by the unique design of its internal hull, which is made of several titanium spheres capable of withstanding high pressure at great depths.

In 2012, the Losharik was involved in research intended to prove Russia’s claim on the vast Arctic seabed. It collected samples from the depth of 2,500 metres, according to official statements at the time. Regular submarines can typically dive to depths of up to about 600 metres.

This 2005 picture shows a Russian Priz-class deep-water vehicle, one of the classes used by the Russian navy. (Jonathan Holloway/AFP/Getty Images)

Some observers speculated the Losharik was capable of going as deep as 6,000 metres, but the claims couldn’t be independently confirmed. Analysts suggested one of its possible missions could be disrupting communication cables on the ocean bed.

The Losharik is carried under the hull of a mother submarine, the nuclear-powered Orenburg.

Russian news reports said while the Losharik officially belongs to the Northern Fleet, it answers directly to the Defence Ministry’s Department for Deep-Sea Research, reflecting the high sensitivity of its missions.

The Russian navy also uses Priz-class and Bester-class deep water vehicles, which have a hull built of titanium and are capable of operating at a depth of 1,000 metres. They are transported to the area of operation by a carrier vessel and can operate autonomously for up to 120 hours.

The blaze marks the deadliest Russian naval incident since 2008, when 20 died after a firefighting system was accidentally initiated as a Nerpa nuclear-powered submarine of Russia’s Pacific Fleet was undergoing trials.

In the deadliest naval incident in post-Soviet Russia, the Kursk nuclear submarine exploded and sank on Aug. 12, 2000, during naval manoeuvres in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crew members.

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