Three SA Navy submariners dead after fatal incident at sea

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Three South African Navy (SAN) submariners died after they were washed off the deck of the submarine SAS Manthatisi (S101) off Kommetjie in the Western Cape.

The incident happened just before 15h00 on Wednesday, according to National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) spokesman Craig Lambinon, who said NSRI Kommetjie was activated following reports of submariners experiencing difficulties offshore, near the Slangkop Lighthouse. Other NSRI stations were activated along with the City of Cape Town Water Rescue Network, Western Cape EMS Rescue Squad, Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services, South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African Air Force (SAAF) in the form of a Super Lynx maritime helicopter and an Oryx medium transport helicopter, both on the strength of 22 Squadron at Air Force Base (AFB) Ysterplaat.

“On arrival on scene, seven divers were rescued from the water. Sadly, two are deceased, one has been transported to hospital in a serious condition and it appears at this stage that four are safe with minimal injuries,” he said. A rescue mission was launched for the recovery of an eighth person aboard a naval vessel, Lambinon said on Wednesday.

This was updated on Thursday by Dave Smith, NSRI Kommetjie station commander, to three dead, one critical and four safe. The Kommetjie NSRI station duty crew was first to respond on receipt of a MOB (man overboard) alert sounded from SAN vessels off Slangkop lighthouse.

The SAN in a Wednesday statement said the incident occurred during a vertical replenishment (vertrep) exercise with a Super Lynx helicopter when high waves swept seven crew members off the surfaced submarine.

“The vertrep evolution was immediately cancelled and efforts were launched to recover the members. A surface swimmer was dispatched from the helicopter to assist with the rescue. Unfortunately, the recovery operation was negatively affected by rough sea conditions,” the Navy said, adding a distress call was made, leading to the dispatch of the NSRI from Kommetjie.

“All seven members were recovered but sadly there were three fatalities with one senior officer in critical condition. The remaining members, including the surface swimmer, are currently being treated in hospital. The names of the members will be released once the next-of-kin have been informed,” the statement read.

According to Cape Town-based defence pundit Dean Wingrin the Type 209 submarine was transiting to the V&A Waterfront ahead of the weekend’s Heritage Day events with MMIPV (multi-mission inshore patrol vessel) SAS King Sekhukhune I (P1571) abeam in heavy seas.

In a further statement today (Thursday) the SANDF released the names of the dead. They are Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector (Executive Officer), Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa (Coxswain) and Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela (Coxswain under training). Hector, formerly Malouw, was the first woman to hold an executive officer post in the SAN submarine service.

An inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the incident will be convened in due course.

“The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans (Thandi Modise), the Chief of the SANDF (General Rudzani Maphwanya), Chief of the SAN (Vice Admiral Monde Lobese) and Flag Officer Fleet (Rear Admiral Musawenkosi “Kop” Nkomonde) extend sincere condolences to the families of the members who tragically lost their lives. The SANDF further extends its sincere thanks and appreciation to the emergency services who assisted in the recovery of the stricken submariners,” the SAN statement concluded.

Cyril Xaba, co-chair of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) was another who offered condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the dead sailors and wished a speedy recovery to those rescued.

South African National Defence Union (SANDU) National Secretary Pikkie Greeff expressed the union’s sincere condolences to the families of the deceased and injured members and reminded the public of the extreme and real risks which SANDF members expose themselves to in service of South Africa.

“SANDU further expresses its gratitude to efforts by the civilian rescue services as well as 22 Squadron of the SAAF in attending to the incident,” Greeff stated.

Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais added his name and that of his party to those of “the SAN and South Africa’s entire defence community” to the list expressing and offering condolences during what he called “a regrettable training exercise incident”.

“As we mourn those who died, let us also recommit ourselves to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all those who serve in the national defence force. We owe it to them to continuously strive for an optimally resourced force with the highest standards of safety and security to prevent tragedies such as this happening in the future,” he said.

African Defence Review (ADR) Director Darren Olivier noted that, “as has been seen over the past few days around South Africa’s coast, the present Cape wave conditions are highly unusual and unpredictable.” High seas in recent days have caused damage to houses, vehicles and infrastructure, including railway lines, along the Eastern and Western Cape coastlines as well as KwaZulu-Natal.

Olivier stated that accidents of this nature can happen despite precautions taken to keep sailors safe and pointed to a similar incident the United States Navy (USN) in 2007 when a sailor died after being washed off the deck of a submarine.