Gas Killed Sleeping Sub Crew

Dozens of crewmen were fast asleep on a nuclear submarine when freezing Freon gas poured over them from a firefighting system, survivors said Tuesday in the first eyewitness accounts of the submarine accident that killed 20 people.

The Nerpa submarine was undergoing sea trials Saturday in the Sea of Japan when its fire-extinguishing system switched on, spewing liquefied Freon gas that asphyxiated the victims and sent 21 others to the hospital. The submarine returned to its home port under its own power Sunday.

Survivors said they were completely caught off guard.

"A siren blared, and Freon came streaming in immediately," shipyard worker Viktor Rivk said on NTV television, speaking from a hospital bed in the Pacific coast port of Vladivostok. He looked feeble and exhausted, and the bridge of his nose was bruised.

Other survivors said a siren warning the crew that the firefighting system was turning on may somehow have been delayed. Seaman Denis Kashevarov told NTV that the siren blared moments after the Freon came streaming in. He said a second wave of Freon came shortly afterward and then he passed out.

Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted another survivor, Sergei Anshakov, who also said the siren went off only after gas began pouring in. A duty officer on the intercom then ordered everyone aboard to don breathing kits, Anshakov said.

Anshakov said some of the victims may have died because they were right under the stream of Freon, they panicked or they couldn't immediately reach their breathing kits.

Rivk said "practically everyone" in his section had breathing gear, but some may have failed to put it on quickly.

Officials blamed the accident on a fire-safety system malfunction. But RIA-Novosti cited an unidentified official on the government panel investigating the incident as saying Tuesday that the system was in working order.

He said the panel must determine whether there was a fire on board.

Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said there was no fire and that the fire system was turned on in error, Interfax reported.