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Russia buries sub disaster dead

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Mourners attended a ceremony at a shipyard where 12 of the men worked

Thousands of mourners have attended the funerals of victims of a gas leak on a Russian nuclear submarine.

Twenty people, mostly civilians, died when freon gas was released, in an unsanctioned activation of a firefighting system, officials said.

Twelve of the victims, all civilian contractors, were buried on Wednesday in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, in Russia's Far East.

The accident occurred on Saturday in the Sea of Japan.

The Nerpa, or Akula-class, attack submarine was undergoing sea trials and had more than 200 people aboard, 81 of them service personnel.

There has been speculation that overcrowding and the presence of so many civilians aboard the vessel may have contributed to the death toll - but this has not been confirmed by officials investigating the accident.

Survivors' account

Three servicemen and 17 civilians were killed and another 21 people were injured in the accident, which happened in the nose of the submarine, officials said.

Cutaway of submarine
1. Personnel working in front section of submarine affected when fire extinguishers set off unexpectedly
2. Affected area may have been sealed off, trapping personnel inside. There were more staff than usual on board as submarine was undergoing tests
3. Fire extinguishers release freon gas, which displaces breathable oxygen, causing workers to suffocate
4. Twenty people die and 21 are injured

Preliminary investigations suggested that the "unsanctioned activation" of the automatic firefighting system caused the tragedy, Russian investigators said earlier this week.

Freon gas displaces oxygen from the air to put out a fire.

However, the investigators said it was still unclear what triggered the system.

Several survivors later recalled the terrifying seconds after the gas started filling some sections of the submarine.

Survivor Viktor Rifk in hospital. Photo: NTV television
Viktor Rifk said he managed to put a gas mask on time

"I was lying down resting after being on watch. Suddenly the freon gas started coming down right above me. It was like a drug. I lost consciousness," said Viktor Rifk, an engineer, quoted by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper on Tuesday.

"We all had gas masks but maybe some people didn't manage to put them on in time," Mr Rifk later told Russia's NTV television.

A number of the people were sleeping when the accident happened, and reports in Russian media suggested that some of them were too dazed to put on gas masks.

Earlier, several former Russian mariners suggested that the civilian personnel - engineers and shipyard workers - may have lacked experience in handling the breathing apparatus.

The nuclear reactor, which is in the stern, was not affected and there was no radiation leak, officials said.

The submarine is due to be leased to India, and Indian naval personnel were due to travel to Vladivostok earlier this month to train on board the submarine ahead of its transfer, according to the website Indian Defence.

Russia's worst submarine disaster happened in August 2000, when the nuclear-powered Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. All 118 people on board died.

The then president, Vladimir Putin, was criticised for being slow to react to the incident and reluctant to call in foreign assistance.

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