I knew it was an accident but eight Generals and a score of Brigadiers/Colonels looked at me with incredulity.
On August 11, 2007, after the morning operational conference, I was sitting in my office and pondering over the prevailing situation in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Counter-terrorism operations were progressing well, counter-infiltration required greater focus and the first signs of ‘Intifada’ type of agitations were discernible. The morning calm was shattered by the shrill ring of the telephone. It was a ‘zero call’ – a procedure through which anyone could contact the Army Commander directly. The Commandant of 21 Field Ammunition Depot (FAD), Khundru, 10 kilometres south-east of Anantnag, was on the line. He excitedly told me that an explosion had been heard from inside the ammunition depot and he was going to investigate and take counter-measures. This spelt ominous portents. Spread over 5 square km, 21 FAD had 21,000 tons of ammunition – TNT equivalent to a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb! Over the years, the area around the FAD had got densely populated and the one kilometre ‘no construction zone’ around the depot had been encroached upon. The depot held the bulk of the war reserve ammunition for 15 Corps.
An ammunition depot is laid out after taking due precaution. The first is the distance between the sheds/stacks which is such that even if one shed/stack gets blown up it does not trigger a sympathetic explosion in other sheds/stacks. Secondly, the high explosive (explodes instantaneously), low explosive (deflagrates), projectiles, fuses, detonators and incendiary ammunition are stored separately to prevent accidents. Thirdly, fire tenders and firemen are part of the depot establishment and each shed has fire extinguishers. Ideally, all ammunition must be stored in underground shelters. Overground sheds with baffle wall are also acceptable. Due to the limitation of sheds, stacks in open covered by tarpaulins are also used. In 21 FAD, the ammunition was stored in overground sheds and stacks in the open.
I was keeping my fingers crossed and hoped that the “safety measures” will prevent a disaster. Yet the military mind was already planning for the worst-case scenario. Ammunition reserves had to be moved up, civilian population had to be evacuated and damage controlled. I did not have to wait long. The Commandant made a “zero call” again within 10 minutes and ominously announced, “Sir, the entire depot is on fire, massive explosions are taking place, many soldiers, civilian labour and firemen are missing.” And he added in a tone of resignation, “As per procedures for ammunition depot fires, post the first explosion/detonation, we can do very little except wait!” After giving me the information, he evacuated his office.
I met the staff in the operations room. Orders were issued for ammunition reserves to be moved up from other depots. The stock of availability of ammunition in forward dumps, gun positions and at the posts was taken. Due to the forever volatile situation along the Line of Control, chances of war at short notice, and army’s panache for over-insuring, there was enough ammunition available for 7-10 days of war. By evening, the convoys were on the move, carrying forward reserve ammunition from other FADs. Ammunition trains started during the night from base depots to make up the stock of the FADs. 21000 tons of ammunition meant 7000 truckloads of ammunition.
In conjunction with the civil administration, orders were issued to evacuate all villages within 5 km distance from the depot. Civilians were warned not to touch ammunition debris. Security of the area was placed under the command of 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles (RR). The depot was cordoned off by 7 RR. Relief camps were established for the evacuated population and community kitchens were opened. 25-30,000 civilian population was evacuated to safety.
There was unanimity amongst my staff that this was a clear-cut terrorist action. Speculation varied from infiltration by terrorists into the depot’s civilian labour and firemen, a missile attack by the terrorists or a suicide attack by the “fedayeen”. All these possibilities were there. However, intellect and experience-driven coup d’oeil told me that this was an accident. I firmly announced that this was an accident and we must get to the bottom it. Eight Generals and a score of Brigadiers/Colonels looked at me with incredulity assuming my statement to be the typical idiosyncrasy of the numero uno.
Within one hour, the visuals of the disaster were being shown on TV screens around the world. Two terrorist organisations had claimed to have initiated the fire and detonation by firing missiles. I ordered a press statement to be issued, rubbishing the claims and stating that all indications point towards an accident. The press release also said that 21 FAD stored only 10% of the reserve ammunition for 15 Corps.
Over the years a number of mysterious fires had engulfed our ammunition depots all over India destroying thousands of crores worth of ammunition. The exact causes were never established. Sabotage by terrorists, spontaneous combustion caused by high temperatures, deterioration of physical or chemical conditions and dry grass catching fire due to windblown ambers coming from fires in civilian areas, were popular reasons. Since accountability in the armed forces is absolute, so is the cover-up to save the good name of the organisation. We never got down to the fundamental problems of inadequate infrastructure, negligence and violation of rules, and regulations. I was determined to get to the bottom of the causes of this fire.
After 15 minutes of the first explosion, I rang up the Commandant of the depot once again to ascertain the sequence of events. Since nothing could be done until the ammunition stopped blowing up, all personnel had taken cover in bunkers outside the depot. The Commandant said that an inspection of the Sub Area Commander was scheduled at 1000 hours and last minute preparations were afoot. It was customary to give a demonstration about the various types of ammunition stored in the depot. Major X, who was responsible for the demonstration had gone to the site, near Shed Number (No) 18, with a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) of the Ordnance Corps and a civilian labourer. Soon thereafter, the first explosion was heard from the general area of Shed No 18. On my further inquiry, he said the various types of ammunition to be demonstrated was kept in Shed No 18 and the demonstration was normally held outside or inside the shed depending on the weather. This was a fundamental violation as various types of ammunition ie including high/low explosives, projectiles, fuses and incendiary ammunition were being stored together. To compound the problem, Shed No 18 was being used for storage of ‘propellant charges’ of Bofors gun shells. This component consists of fibrous explosive material packed into a cylindrical shape. The charge itself is a low explosive ie it burns (deflagrates) instead of detonating —- but when ignited in the gun chamber, it propels the high explosive shell. When it catches fire, it deflagrates into a fireball in the same manner as petrol. For the ease of the demonstration, the various types of ammunition were permanently stored in Shed No 18. And given its contents, it was a disaster waiting to happen. On further inquiry, it emerged that the ‘Flame Thrower’ was also part of the demonstration ammunition.
Most readers would have seen the classic flame thrower in war movies, on the back of the German soldier. It consisted of inflammable liquid and gas under pressure, in a container with a tube and nozzle. It could shoot a tongue of flame up to a distance of 30 to 40 feet. The flame thrower was one of the most dreaded weapons of World War II. However, what we had was a one-time use incendiary rocket launcher of Russian origin – RPO A Shmel – which is fired from a discardable tube and has a range of 600-1,000 metres. The weapons produced a back blast when fired and it arms after 20 metres. I had covered an anecdote related to this weapon in an earlier column. This weapon system is easy to handle with necessary precautions. Since it produces a back blast no personnel/incendiary material must be within 20 metres to the rear within an angle of 30 degrees. Secondly, once armed, great care had to be exercised while disarming it with all precautions of actual firing.
Based on my experience, I had a hunch that the ‘villain of the piece’ in blowing up the depot was the ‘flame thrower’. I was also certain that there would be survivors inside the depot as there were many safety trenches and broken ground. I directed Commander 1 Sector RR that all survivors must be segregated for questioning. Little could be done about the exploding and burning depot as per procedures. I directed that photographic and video recording must be done including by helicopters and UAVs. The visuals were similar to the effects of a nuclear explosion. Every time a shed/stack blew up the mushroom cloud hundreds of meters high would be formed. The raging fires looked like a huge volcano erupting.
The explosions subsided after 36 hours. There were 30-40 personnel inside the depot. We lost one officer, one soldier from the Defence Security Corps (DSC) and 13 brave firemen who were local civilian employees of the depot and had rushed into the depot to control the initial fire. Luckily, only two civilian casualties took place as the curfew had been strictly enforced and the area evacuated.
By late evening, I got the news that the NCO and the civilian labourer who were with Major X in Shed No 18 had survived. I directed that both the individuals should be placed under ‘preventive security’ for the inquiry. The labourer had been sent to the village.
On August 13, at 0900 hours, I flew down in a helicopter and did an aerial reconnaissance of the depot. I found approximately 15 sheds had been blown up along with a large number of stacks in open. The bulk of the ammunition sheds remained intact. There were speculations galore about the causes, number of casualties and the extent of the military and civilian damage. Since the depot stored 21000 tons of ammunition, there were rumours spread that an area of 10-km diameter had been flattened killing thousands of civilians.
I held a no-holds-barred press conference for national/international media to squash the rumours. I gave out the details of the casualties, the measures taken by us to prevent further loss of life and the compensation being given. The press did not believe a word. I took a bold decision. Five helicopters were immediately called up and the entire print and TV media were taken up for an aerial view to kill the rumours for good.
By late evening another crisis loomed. The kith of the firemen were trying to force entry into the depot to retrieve the bodies. The last explosion had taken place while I was flying over the depot and the minimum waiting period was 48 hours. A crowd of 2-3,000 had gathered at the gates. I decided to take the risk and directed the Commandant of the depot to retrieve the bodies. At great risk, young officers led three teams to retrieve the dead bodies.
At night I sat with Commander 1 Sector RR and Commandant of the depot to resolve the mystery of the fire. After putting the pieces together, it emerged that the demonstration of various types of ammunition was a regular feature during inspections. Major X was responsible for the demonstration along with an NCO and a civilian labourer. For the sake of convenience, the ammunition for the demonstration was kept in Shed No 18 which housed the ‘propellant charges’ of the Bofors ammunition. This was a gross violation of the segregation norms wherein incendiary, high explosive, low explosive and fuses cannot be stored together. The shed was also used for the demonstration during bad weather. On August 13, Major X and his team went to Shed No 18 to lay out the exhibits. While the NCO and the civilian labourer were busy carrying the ammunition out of the shed for display, Major X decided to check the RPO A Shmel incendiary rocket launcher/flame thrower. He ‘armed’ the launcher by moving the ‘safe’ mechanism. He was standing behind the launcher, another cardinal mistake. As he was bringing the launcher back to ‘safe’ position, his fingers fumbled and the launcher fired. The back blast dismembered one leg of Major X from the thigh. The rocket pierced the metal sheet wall and fell outside. Since it had met with an obstruction before 20 meters, which is the arming range, it did not explode and was surprisingly found intact by the detailed Court of Inquiry after 15 days. The back blast, not only dismembered the leg of Major X, it set fire to the ‘propellant charges’. The NCO and the civilian labourer made a desperate effort to pull Major X out of the shed, but the fast-spreading fire forced them to abandon him and rush out.
As the fire spread with the propellant charges, within 3-4 minutes, five tons of low explosive went up with a loud ‘whoosh’! The blast though of low intensity blew up the roof of the shed and the debris fell on white phosphorous incendiary ammunition stored in the open under tarpaulin covers. The distance norms between Shed No 18 and white phosphorous ammunition stacks had been compromised. In the Army, we have a saying that once white phosphorus ammunition catches fire, even god cannot extinguish it. The 13 brave firemen who rushed to extinguish the fire on hearing the first explosion, were charred beyond recognition. As the incendiary ammunition exploded, it triggered a sympathetic explosion in ammunition kept in other sheds and open stacks. Within 10 minutes, the entire ammunition dump was on fire and exploding. Barring Major X, one soldier of DSC and 14 firemen, the balance of the 30 personnel working in the depot, survived by jumping into trenches or broken ground.
All these aspects were confirmed by the detailed Court of Inquiry. It also emerged that apart from the segregation norms being flouted, the distance norms were flouted due to non-utilisation of additional land acquired years ago as the permission to cut the trees had not been given by the concerned Government ministry.
It was a long haul to sanitise the area inside and outside the depot. Resources from the entire army were moved and the area sanitised in two months. There were only two fatal civilian casualties when the depot exploded. However, there were 3-4 more due to tinkering with shells for metal scrap. When the final stock was taken, 700 tons ie 3.3 % of the total stock 21,000 tons was destroyed. Rest was checked, repaired and made serviceable.
For the first time, the cause of the “mystery fires” at our ammunition depots had been established. It was the violation of the fundamental norms of safety and storage with respect to segregation in respect of demonstration ammunition and distance in respect between the sheds and the stacks of incendiary ammunition. That 20,300 tons of ammunition was saved also reflects that adherence to safety norms pays.
The infrastructure of most of our ammunition depots is well below the ideal. We still do not have underground storage sheds which are required for both safety as well as protection during war. Ammunition beyond the laid-down capacity is held by most depots. Despite constant complaints, the civil administration has failed to enforce the one-km ‘no construction’ zone around the depots. The armed forces also need to strictly enforce the safety norms.