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Inquiry probes cause of Russian sub deaths
Russia Submarine MO 5547252
The Nerpa (Seal), one of Russia's Shchuka (Pike) class (NATO reporting name: Akula) nuclear submarines, where at least 20 people were killed in an accident, seen heading to a Russia's Pacific Fleet base, about 6,400 km (4,000 miles) east of Moscow, shortly after the accident in this image made from television Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008. The fire safety system on aboard The Nerpa malfunctioned on a test run in the Sea of Japan, spewing chemicals that killed at least 20 people and injured 21 others, officials said Sunday. The submarine itself was not damaged and traveled back to its base on Russia's Pacific coast under its own power Sunday, Russian navy said. - photo by Associated Press
    MOSCOW — A manufacturing flaw, a misplaced cable, even a cigarette.
    Those are some of the scenarios put forward by navy veterans and experts as investigators try to determine what activated a firefighting system aboard a new Russian nuclear submarine beneath the Sea of Japan, and why 20 people were killed.
    The Akula-class submarine was undergoing sea trials Saturday with 208 people aboard when its fire-extinguishing system activated in error, spewing Freon gas that suffocated the victims and injured 21 others, Russian officials said.
    With little official information emerging yet about the precise cause, experts said overcrowding and human errors may have contributed to the accident and the casualty toll aboard the Nerpa — the worst on a Russian sub since the Kursk disaster killed 118 seamen in 2000.
    The vessel, which the navy said was to become part of its fleet later this year, had 208 people aboard when the accident occurred, including 81 seamen. The rest were civilians, many from the shipyard that built the submarine. Akula-class subs normally carry a crew of 73.
    Sea trials often pose increased safety risks, retired submarine Capt. Alexander Pokrovsky said.
    ‘‘It means cramped conditions, overcrowding and lack of place to sleep,’’ Pokrovsky wrote on the Russian-language Web site He also said Freon-based fire-extinguishing systems are dangerous for crews and should be replaced with safer equipment.
    Another former submariner, Retired Vice Adm. Rudolf Golosov, told Ekho Moskvy radio the shipyard workers likely had little or no experience using individual breathing kits that might have saved their lives. Seventeen of the dead were civilians.
    ‘‘From my own experience, I have a strong suspicion that the shipyard personnel lacked proper training,’’ Golosov said.
    There were probably not enough breathing kits for all those aboard, he said.
    If they lacked portable breathing kits, they were totally helpless,’’ he said, adding that doorways between separate submarine sections are locked in emergencies.
    Golosov said it was unclear whether a siren warning the crew that the firefighting system was activated worked properly. If it failed, he said, victims would not have realized Freon was being released until it was too late.
    Igor Kurdin, a former captain who heads an association of submarine veterans, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that the fire-suppression system could have been triggered by something as simple as someone smoking a cigarette near a safety gauge.
    ‘‘Civilians should have undergone training. But it usually is a mere formality,’’ Kurdin was quoted as saying.
    Meanwhile, Kommersant and another leading business daily, Vedomosti, reported Monday that the submarine was to be handed over to India’s navy next year under a 10-year, $650-million lease.
    India’s navy chief, Adm. Sureesh Mehta, was quoted as saying India was negotiating the lease of two Russian nuclear submarines, the first of which could arrive next year.
    Armed with cruise missiles capable of hitting targets 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) away, an Akula-class submarine would dramatically bolster India’s navy capability amid a growing rivalry with China for dominance over Indian Ocean shipping lanes. A nuclear sub would also heighten India’s tensions with archrival Pakistan.
    Indian news reports said Monday the submarine was to join the country’s navy in August.
    Indian naval spokesman Cmdr. Nirad Sinha would not say whether the Nerpa was to be leased.
    The accident could also undermine Moscow’s efforts to boost arms sales.
    Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Steve Gutterman in Moscow contributed to this report.

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