Sailor Investigated in Submarine Deaths

ReutersServicemen paying tribute Nerpa submarine victims at a funeral in Bolshoi Kamen, near Vladivostok, on Thursday.
Investigators said Thursday that they had opened a criminal case against a sailor suspected of triggering an accident on a nuclear submarine that killed 20 people last weekend.

The accident, which investigators said occurred during sea trials of the Nerpa nuclear submarine on Saturday in the Sea of Japan, was caused when the fire-extinguishing system was turned on, releasing Freon gas that asphyxiated the victims.

"The suspect is one of the sailors in the crew who, without any reason whatsoever, turned on the submarine's fire-extinguishing system, as a result of which 20 people were killed and 21 hospitalized," the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

"A criminal case in relation to the suspect has been opened under a clause ... [on] causing death of two or more people by carelessness."

The suspect has admitted his guilt, the committee said. It did not say if it would be investigating why the activation of the fire-extinguishing system proved fatal for so many people.

Submarine crews are supposed to have breathing apparatuses with them at all times to protect them from the gas. Freon is used as a fire suppressant.

The Navy said 208 people -- or nearly three times more than its usual crew -- were aboard the submarine at the time of the incident.

Former submarine officers have said there may not have been enough breathing kits for all the people on the submarine when the gas was released.