The second the Indian Naval Submarine (INS) Sindhurakshak went down, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that from that moment onwards, the only entity standing in between life and certain death for those 18 trapped inside was the tightly knit community of the Indian Navy (IN) divers. Pressed into service almost immediately, the performance of these 30 odd men from the Command Clearance Diving team of the Western Naval Command (WNC) and the INS Abhimanyu – Navy’s closely guarded commando training centre across the harbour – remains the only silver lining in the otherwise tragic episode.
Notwithstanding any of their abilities, fact remains that no one in the Indian Navy had even imagined an operation of this type will be ever required. “As divers our task and training is always in the combat arena like laying mines in the enemy harbour or sabotaging enemy ships/submarines. Rescue of this type had never been imagined,” said one of them.
As result, before the divers could begin working on the sunk INS Sindhurakshak, sitting in waters not deeper than 10 metres, they familiarised themselves with another Kilo-class submarine which had been berthed alongside. In addition to that, detailed maps and diagrams of the submarine have been placed at the site of the sinking by the Navy. It was also ordered that the residual crew of the INS Sindhurakshak, including the Commanding Officer (CO), Commander Rajesh Ramkumar and the other officers and men make themselves available at the site all the time. And given that earlier it was the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral DK Joshi and now the chief of WNC, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha who is literally camping at the site, there is an unmistakable air of urgency all around.
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“We work in shifts of eight hours and there are three such shifts, which means these operations carry on whether day or not”, said one of them. However, divers need to surface every three hours and then go back in. The deeper one dives, the faster is the loss of energy from the body, so divers come up, revive and take the plunge again.
“In a nutshell, we are inserting ourselves blindfolded into an unfamiliar, constricted, flooded compartment full of live missiles and torpoedos to search for the bodies of our colleagues,” summed up a diver familiar with the operation. The biggest impediment is, naturally, near zero visibility and lack of depth. “We can otherwise insert underwater material which on inserting below the submarine gains buoyancy and automatically floats it when we complete pumping out the water. That is not an option here,” it was mentioned.
On speaking to the divers, it was understood that most of the bodies were being found in the alleyway of the sub which means that the crew, perhaps alerted by the fire, was attempting to make an exit when the explosions claimed them all. Not surprisingly, doctors of the state-run JJ hospital say that the five bodies brought to them show that those men had died of burns and not drowning.
In the course of operating inside a submarine, there are those chilling moments too. “Since we can’t see a thing, we rely on our hands to feel and indicate. Sometimes we accidentally cause bodies or parts to get released or gain buoyancy and it is almost like we are confronted by them. At such times, our training and buddy see us through,” recounted one of the divers.
Then there are inherent risks of such operations. For example, inside the Sindhurakshak, there are six compartments inter-connected by four hatches. These hatches have completely fused due to the tremendously high temperatures during the explosions on board. This necessitates use of underwater cutters which create a build-up of hydrogen gas. If unchecked, this can trigger further explosions. There is also the need to secure the diver’s umbilical/lifeline which can easily get entwined in the narrow alleys of a mangled submarine and jeopardise the diver’s safety. It is to counter such an eventuality that while the divers operate, a supervisor sits atop on shore alongwith a complement of attendants, spare diver and rescue equipment.
“We can talk to them if we are wearing Diver’s Underwater Communication System (DUCS) helmet but that may not always happen as the narrow ways of the sub often don’t permit that. Then we communicate using pre-decided codes of pulling the rope to indicate our needs”, explained a diver.
The most satisfying moment for the diver can also be a heartbreaking one. Explained a diver, “Our job is to locate our dead colleagues. It may so happen that we may pass a place many a times without feeling the body but when we finally manage locating it, we tie it to a rope, lead it to the conning tower and climb up first, so that it can pulled up and out of the submarine. Till now, all the bodies have been brought out that way. When a body, however is brought, a small ritual is followed before it is sent to the medical authorities. While it is pulled up, everyone stands up and before sending it, it gets the final salute from none less than the Commander-in-Chief. This is being done for every single body.”
“During our initial days, even though we would get into another submarine to understand the structure of Sindhurakshak, on getting into it, it would almost be as if we went blank. So we kept coming out and going back to train ourselves. We did this many a times.”
“When we got the first body pulled up, it was then that we realised just how bad the body’s condition was. Completely gutted, deformed and rotting. We couldn’t eat and we still can’t.”