Mumbai, Feb. 27: When a Korean-made offshore patrol craft of the Indian Navy tugged the Russian-made INS Sindhuratna back into the Mumbai harbour this morning, it brought home the dead with the survivors.
Lieutenant Commander Kapish Muwal, 32, and Lieutenant Manoranjan Kumar, 30, died not because they were slow to leave a submarine compartment filled with toxic gases but because they chose to risk their lives to save their comrades, naval sources told The Telegraph.
“Their deaths were a supreme sacrifice in the highest traditions of the Indian defence forces. They gave up their lives to save others,” said a senior naval officer of the Western Command who was part of a team that spoke to the crew of the Sindhuratna.
A battery leak on board the submarine during a crucial mid-sea inspection on Wednesday morning had started a fire, and poisonous fumes from fire extinguishers filled two compartments.
“Muwal and Kumar were pushing their men out of the affected compartments 3 and 4 where fumes were spreading. They were kicking and shoving (the others) and helping them escape,” the officer said.
“In the end, one of them went back to check whether anybody had been left behind, while the other waited. That’s when the hatch between compartments 4 and 5 closed, trapping the two of them inside.”
Muwal, from Delhi, was married and leaves behind a child. Kumar, from Jamshedpur, was single and stayed at the Western Command naval officers’ mess.
Each had won the Sword of Honour as the best cadet in his batch. Kumar had been earmarked for promotion as acting lieutenant commander.
The survivors were inconsolable when they came ashore at Mumbai’s naval dockyard. “All those men too had grappled with death for over 24 hours, inhaling the (residual) lethal gases lurking inside the labyrinthine, dark compartments of INS Sindhuratna. The battery leak had snuffed out the lights,” the officer who spoke to this newspaper said.
The mishap has prompted the resignation of Admiral D.K. Joshi as navy chief and questions are swirling around defence minister A.K. Antony.
In Delhi, the younger brother of Muwal said something that will pose more questions to the defence establishment. “When he (Muwal) came home, he told us that everyone knew about the bad condition of the submarine and he was concerned about it,” Ashish Muwal said.
But the family was not blaming the navy. “This is part of the job. Accidents happen as they do on the roads of Delhi every day. How can we blame the navy for this accident? We stand by the navy,” Kapish’s uncle Om Prakash Ahalwat said.
The condition of the submarine’s commanding officer, Commander Sandeep Sinha, 40, worsened today. Sinha, who had taken ill from inhaling the fumes while trying to rescue Muwal and Kumar, had agreed to be evacuated with 22 others only after seven critically ill sailors had been airlifted.
The commander was evacuated by ship yesterday, two hours after the accident. It took three more hours to bring him ashore.
“He was doing well initially but on Thursday he turned critical and could not breathe. He has been put on ventilator. The sub’s engineering officer — a lieutenant commander — is also in a serious condition,” the officer said.
Popular for his jovial nature and one-liners, Commander Sinha — “Sandy” to his friends — is a second-generation naval officer, as were Muwal and Kumar.
“Sinha’s father is a retired commander of the navy’s logistics branch. He has this unique ability to make everyone happy. He is also a fighter — I know in my heart that he is going to pull this one off too and be on his feet soon,” said an officer from the directorate of submarines who was among Sinha’s mates at the National Defence Academy.
Sinha’s wife, four-year-old daughter and two-and-a-half-year-old son live with him in Mumbai. His parents are in Gurgaon. “His father-in-law too is a retired Rear Admiral,” Sinha’s friend said.
The INS Sukanya-class frigate that had come to Sindhuratna’s aid yesterday had initially tried to tug the sub ashore across a distance of more than 100 nautical miles.
But the submarine was able to restore some batteries, recharged them after a while, and began moving towards Mumbai on its own power by yesterday afternoon. However, the batteries soon ran out.
“The submarine now turned completely dark. With no cooling inside, the bodies of the dead officers had begun to smell by Wednesday night. It was a morbid atmosphere and, in the dark, not many spoke,” said a navy source.
Torchlight was used sparingly to save the cells. The vessel plodded back ashore wearily, tugged again by the Sukanya-class frigate.
Four naval fast-crafts joined the operation sometime during the small hours today.
INS Sindhuratna was berthed a little after 10am right behind the spot where INS Sindhurakshak — the kilo-class submarine where an explosion killed 18 sailors last August — used to be anchored.
The following is a poem written by an officer who was closely associated with Lt Cdr Kapish Muwal and Lt Manoranjan Kumar
SWORD OF HONOUR