Fire in battery compartment causes explosion on Russian submersible

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MURMANSK, RUSSIA - JULY 3, 2019: People bring flowers to a Navy memorial at the Church of the Saviour on Waters to commemorate 14 Russian Navy officers who died in a fire on a research deep-sea submersible in Russia's northern territorial waters on 1 July 2019. Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

Russia says the main cause of the deadly incident on board a submersible which killed 14 crew on Monday was a fire in the battery compartment. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also said the top-secret military craft was nuclear-powered but the reactor had been isolated from the fire. The 14 senior officers died of smoke inhalation as a result of the fire on the submersible in the Barents Sea. The craft is now at Severomorsk, the main base of Russia’s Northern Fleet. It has not been named, but it is a deep-sea research vessel, which had been exploring the Arctic seabed, the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta says. It had been descending to extreme depths on difficult missions, the paper reported. Those missions were not specified, but Russia is in an international race to stake territorial claims in the Arctic, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas and other minerals. “The main cause has been established it was a fire in the battery compartment, and then it spread,” Mr Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin in a meeting on 4 July, according to the Kremlin website. “The nuclear power unit on the vessel has been fully isolated and nobody is in that section. The crew took all the necessary measures to protect the unit, and it is in full working condition. This leads to us to hope that in quite a short time the vessel can be put back into service.” The fire broke out as the submersible was in Russian territorial waters, the defence ministry says. The ministry has now named all 14 victims, and all were senior officers.

Seven were first-rank captains, including two with Hero of Russia awards; three were second-rank captains; two were third-rank captains; one was a captain-lieutenant and one a lieutenant-colonel. first-rank captain comes fifth in the Russian naval hierarchy, after four ranks of admiral. After three ranks of captain comes the rank of captain-lieutenant. They were from a unit based in Peterhof, a district of St Petersburg. The ministry says several crew members survived and are in hospital, but no figure has been given. A “civilian specialist” was rescued by the crew during the fire. Severomorsk was also home to the Russian Kursk nuclear submarine, which sank in 2000 killing 118 sailors. Mr Putin was heavily criticized for the way he handled the Kursk disaster. Media reports at the time showed him enjoying a holiday at a Black Sea villa as families of the victims demanded information about their relatives. In the latest incident, the Kremlin has also given few details about the vessel, “in the interests of the state and state security”. Several newspapers, quoting military sources, identified the stricken vessel as an AS-12 nicknamed “Losharik” or AS-31 submersible. These mini-subs can dive up to 6,000m (19,685ft) and are designed to be carried under the belly of a larger submarine. They are operated by the Russian military’s Chief Directorate for Deep Water Research the GUGI often referred to as the country’s “underwater intelligence service”.

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