President Putin after finding out about the fatal accident.
President Putin after finding out about the fatal accident. Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Fire on Russian submersible kills 14 crew

FIRE broke out on one of the Russian navy's deep-sea research submersibles and toxic fumes from the blaze killed 14 sailors aboard, Russia's defence ministry says.

Few details about the disaster or the vessel involved have been released.

The defence ministry did not say how many sailors were aboard the vessel during Monday's fire, whether there were any survivors or if it was submerged at the time.

But Russian media reported it was the country's most secret submersible, a nuclear-powered vessel designed for sensitive missions at great depths.

President Vladimir Putin, who came under criticism for his handling of the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000 that killed 118 sailors, cancelled a scheduled appearance and immediately summoned Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for a briefing on the blaze, which was under investigation.

"Fourteen submariners have died of poisoning by fumes from the fire," Shoigu told Putin during a televised meeting. "The fire was extinguished thanks to the crew's resolute action."

Putin ordered Shoigu to fly to the Arctic port of Severomorsk, the main base for Russia's Northern Fleet where the vessel was brought, to oversee the investigation and report back to him personally.

"It's a huge loss for the navy," Putin said. "I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the victims."

He added that the vessel had a special mission and an elite crew.

"It's isn't a regular vessel. It's a research vessel with a highly professional crew," Putin said, adding that seven of the dead had the rank of captain and two were awarded the nation's highest medal, the Hero of Russia.

The fire occurred while the submersible was measuring sea depths in Russia's territorial waters, the ministry said, adding that the vessel is also used for studying the seabed.

Russia's RBC online news outlet and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper identified it as the nuclear-powered AS-12 Losharik.

The vessel is the most advanced Russian submersible, under a heavy veil of secrecy, and it is believed to have entered service in 2010. The name apparently derives from the unique design of its interior hull, which is made of titanium spheres capable of withstanding high pressure at great depths.

In 2012, the Losharik was involved in research intended to prove Russia's claim on the vast Arctic seabed. It collected samples from the depth of 2500 metres, according to official statements at the time. Regular submarines can typically dive to depths of up to 600 metres.

Some observers speculated the Losharik was even capable of going as deep as 6000 metres, but the claims couldn't be independently confirmed. Analysts suggested that one of its possible missions could be disrupting communication cables on the seabed.

The vessel has been surrounded by tight secrecy, but in 2015, it was accidentally caught on camera by a photographer from a motoring magazine doing a photo session on the White Sea coast.

The blaze marks the most serious Russian naval disaster since 2008, when 20 crew members died aboard the nuclear-powered Nerpa submarine in the Pacific Fleet after a firefighting system was accidentally initiated while it was undergoing sea trials.

The accident involving the Kursk was the worst naval disaster in post-Soviet Russia. It occurred on August 12, 2000, when the nuclear submarine exploded and sank during manoeuvres in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crew members.

Putin, who was in the first year of his presidency, came under heavy criticism at the time when he failed to immediately interrupt his vacation to take charge of the disaster.

Interactive: Where you can still get a house for $500k

Premium Content Interactive: Where you can still get a house for $500k

Here’s where you can still get a house for less than $500,000

Queen's sorrow as PM sums up sadness

Premium Content Queen's sorrow as PM sums up sadness

Scott Morrison speaks to the Queen on Prince Philip's passing

Blue-eyed surfer becomes dad-of-50 in sperm bank glitch

Premium Content Blue-eyed surfer becomes dad-of-50 in sperm bank glitch

There are now fears he could have fathered dozens more