March 7: A mishap with a fire-fighting system killed a navy commander aboard a warship called Kolkata in Mumbai this afternoon, costing the navy its third young officer in freak onboard accidents over nine days.
Commander Kuntal Wadhwa, 40, was conducting checks in the engine room of the soon-to-be-commissioned guided-missile destroyer when a 15-20kg brass valve from a carbon dioxide cylinder burst and hit his chest “like a projectile”.
The frigate was being outfitted by the defence public sector Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) at the Bombay Port Trust dockyard and was undergoing trials. Its keel was rusting in the waters off Mumbai for years before MDL accommodated it in its yards.
Mazagon Dock is directly under the charge of the secretary (defence production) —who reports to defence minister A.K. Antony — and not under the navy.
The BJP has demanded Antony’s resignation because of the series of accidents to have hit the navy and its projects. His term ends in two months in any case.
Last week, the navy chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi, resigned after a fire in the submarine INS Sindhuratna killed two officers.
Navy officers have been frustrated with the quality of workmanship in MDL for a long time. They also say that MDL manipulates schedules to earn more revenues.
The 6,700-tonne Kolkata is a “stealth” destroyer that is the first in its class. It was to be commissioned into the navy next month, to be followed by the Kochi and the Chennai later this year.
The plan for the three ships — called Project 15A — began in the year 2000, but it has been plagued by time and cost overruns throughout.
For years after its keel was laid, the Kolkata was floating, unable to sail, in the waters off Mumbai for lack of space in MDL’s docks.
Project 15A now also has a different kind of problem. The ships’ propulsion systems are Zorya/Mashproekt M36E gas turbine plants from Ukraine. With civil and political unrest sweeping the erstwhile Soviet republic, there is a question mark on the supplies of spares and the maintenance of the engines.
It wasn’t clear whether the blow from the valve or the subsequent gas leak killed Wadhwa, a naval engineer who leaves behind his wife, a 12-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. The navy has ordered a board of inquiry.
“It all happened so suddenly; we were taken by surprise. There was no fire ---- the valve just flew off and the next moment, Wadhwa Sir was on the floor,” a naval source said.
“We don’t know if it was instant death as the carbon dioxide spewing from the cylinder led to confusion. While he collapsed after taking the hit, many MDL workers started choking on the carbon dioxide. Even Wadhwa Sir may have taken in some of the gas, which can be fatal.”
A ship’s fire-extinguishing system stores liquefied carbon dioxide under far greater pressure --- 80 to 100 bars ---- than the common extinguishers found at homes, where the pressure is limited to 55 bars.
“When you operate the fire-extinguisher levers, the gas is released by a controlling valve. But something went wrong,” said a source in the Western Naval Command.
Wadhwa, who lived in the naval officers’ quarters in Mumbai’s Colaba area with his wife and children, was declared dead on arrival at the government-run St George Hospital.
His parents, who live in Delhi, have been told and were expected to reach Mumbai tonight.
Before a ship is due for commissioning, the navy conducts its own checks with its own officers in the last phase.
“They oversee the last mile ---- working aboard the ship alongside original equipment manufacturers, suppliers, vendors and others,” the naval source said.
“This is done to ensure that there are no problems during commissioning or after. As part of that, Wadhwa would be there at MDL every day with his team since the past few weeks.”
The source added: “Even a couple of days ago, we had met in the middle of an annual inspection at the Western Naval Command. He was such a good officer ---- everybody believed that he had it in him to be an admiral one day.”
A 51-year-old MDL worker, Aslam G. Kazi, a resident of Mumbai’s Malad area, has been admitted to a private hospital.
A senior Western Naval Command officer said the accident had not damaged the ship. “With some upgrades and repair, she will be fine; MDL authorities have told us there will be no delay in commissioning.”
The Kolkata has on board a landing deck and a hangar for two helicopters. It is being given “an updated weapons package and new-look exteriors and improved stealth (making it difficult to detect)”, says official literature from the directorate of naval design.
It is not the only warship to be delayed. A parliamentary committee study has found that nearly all the stealth projects of the navy, their worth totalling more than Rs 19,000 crore, are behind schedule. More than 30 ships and submarines are being built for the Indian Navy at home and overseas.
The Kolkata’s keel was laid in September 2003 when it was announced that it would be commissioned in 2010. Calcutta’s own Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers is too small to accommodate a destroyer.
The navy has been left disappointed with the quality of workmanship and the cost and time overruns at Mazagon Dock.
During a visit to MDL in 2012, a senior naval officer had told The Telegraph: “They do not have the manpower, design, capability, availability of berths, and the wherewithal to meet monthly targets. Simply put, there does not seem to be the will.”
He said the MDL makes a 12 per cent profit in any case and the cost overruns add to its revenues.
The Kolkata was estimated to cost nearly Rs 8,500 crore but that has now gone up to about Rs 12,000 crore. The damage to the ship is set to add more to the cost.
The Kolkata will have a HUMSA-NG (hull mounted sonar array – new generation) capable of detecting submarines.
Its weaponry, apart from the Brahmos, will comprise an Indo-Israeli long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) with a range of 70km, four AK-630 Gatling guns and anti-submarine torpedoes.