Shipyard workers call for end to 'scapegoat' court martial in Nerpa case
MOSCOW, May 16 (RIA Novosti, Alexei Korolyov, Howard Gethin) - Russian naval dockyard workers are demanding that negligence charges be dropped against the captain of a Russian nuclear submarine in which 20 crew members died in an accident three years ago.
Seventeen of the dead were civilians, killed when fire-suppressant freon gas spewed into the Nerpa attack submarine in November 2008, following an unsanctioned activation of its fire extinguishing system.
Another 21 people were injured in the incident which occurred during sea trials in the Sea of Japan.
The Nerpa's captain, Dmitry Lavrentyev, and engineer Dmitry Grobov, who allegedly activated the fire-fighting system "without authorization and for no reason," have been accused of professional negligence resulting in death or injury, in a court martial which opened in April.
In an open letter shown to journalists last week, a shipyard delivery crew expressed concern that the two men might be "scapegoats" and that the disaster was the result of "corruption and disintegration of the military sector."
"The workers at the Amur Shipyard, including those who were on board the submarine in November 2008, believe that the real culprits have not been charged," former Vice Admiral Boris Prikhodko told a press conference in the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
"We all demand further investigation. You can't just pick scapegoats."
If found guilty, Lavrentyev and Grobov could be jailed for ten and five years respectively.
Mikhail Barabanov, editor of Moscow Defense Brief magazine, claimed in a 2008 Newsweek article that the tragedy was caused by a malfunction of the boat's Malakhit digital control system, rather than human error.
The Nerpa was carrying 208 people at the time of the accident, nearly three times its normal complement, as it was undergoing shakedown trials.
The remaining 188 people on board were only spared death due to the "correct decisions of the submarine's commander," the shipyard workers' letter says.
Yakov Agapov, a former senior medical officer with Russia's Pacific Fleet, said that instead of pure freon, the Nerpa's firefighting system contained a "lethal" mixture of freon and trichloroethylene, which is commonly used as an industrial solvent and is highly corrosive.
"Trichloroethylene knocks you off instantly," Agapov said. "If there had been high-quality freon [in the system], the people would have had a few minutes to put on portable breathing equipment."
He said this mixture was an estimated 5.5 million rubles ($198,500) cheaper than freon.
"They stole the freon and replaced it with a poison, that is why people were killed," Prikhodko said. "Where that freon went and who stole it remains an open question."
Analysts say overcrowding and the inexperience of 127 civilian personnel on board the vessel in handling breathing equipment may have caused the high casualty rate.
Michael Armstrong, a former British Royal Navy submariner, told RIA Novosti that freon is "an unwelcome gas in a boat," but should not have prevented the crew from taking action.
"It is accepted that even using an inert gas system like freon or halon, some people might still die," he said in e-mailed comments. Freon is commonly used in automated fire suppression systems and works by displacing the oxygen needed to sustain a fire.
Armstrong agreed with Agapov, however, that there would have been plenty of time to put a gas mask on if there had been no trichloroethylene in the Nerpa's fire-suppression system.
"If the gas is pure, you have about two minutes before you will pass out. Even if you inhale the gas, two minutes is plenty of time," he said. "So the 'poisoned' freon they inhaled almost certainly reduced their chances as it would likely have incapacitated them."
The Nerpa is due to be leased to the Indian navy within a few months, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
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