You’ve heard stories of Indian Army and Air Force heroes. Now here’s an angel from the Navy

Unsung heroes.
Unsung heroes.
Image: Savita Kirloskar/Reuters
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Arabian Sea, 220 km off the Mumbai coast

6.55 am, Aug. 30, 2010

“Three men overboard, sir!” Seventy feet from where he stood watch on the periscope tower, Lt Cdr Firdaus Mogal had just witnessed three sailors on the submarine’s back being violently flung several feet out into the churning Arabian Sea. The sun had just risen, and as the submarine violently bobbed and pitched in the swell, it was clear to the executive officer (XO in military parlance) that the three heads in the water were drifting helplessly away—and fast. He knew a minute wasted would mean the possibility of losing those men.

Lt Cdr Firdaus had opted for the submarine arm of the Indian Navy. A fully voluntary division that permits entry only to sailors and officers who make a certain cut, the submarine arm, like the military special forces, requires additional conditioning, both physical and psychological, given the consistently isolated and menacing circumstances that submariners work in as part of their routine duties at sea.

Type 209 attack submarine

There was a problem. A serious one, detected at dawn. An exhaust valve that expelled toxic by-products of the submarine’s electric batteries had failed, causing a leak inside INS Shankush, a glitch that could be deadly to the crew if left unrepaired.

The engineering officer called three sailors and led them down the outside ladder of the conning tower and onto the submarine’s back half. The men were strapped to safety lines as they descended the sides to fix the faulty valve. But to actually conduct the repair, they needed to remove the safety straps since the valve was situated within the submarine’s casing. About 15 minutes into the repair operation, the men were preparing to emerge and strap themselves back into their safety lines, but they didn’t see what was roaring towards them.

“You cannot predict waves. This one was 15 feet high and came out of nowhere. Three men were flung overboard,” says Cdr Murali who, by this time, had descended to the bridge, the submarine’s control room, to monitor the repair operation while his XO kept visual tabs from the tower.

But something had caught Lt Cdr Firdaus’s eye—the fourth man, who had also been flung overboard, was spotted hanging by the side of the submarine, holding on precariously to his safety line. The sailor had injured himself badly and was bleeding from a deep cut on his leg. Lt Cdr Firdaus immediately climbed down the conning tower and rushed forward across the submarine’s casing. Reaching down while fighting a ferociously pitching sea, he heaved with all his strength to pull the injured sailor up. Supporting the sailor, since he couldn’t walk, Lt Cdr Firdaus rushed him back to the conning tower and had him lowered in for treatment.

With one man rescued, Lt Cdr Firdaus cast his gaze away from the submarine to the three men bobbing in the water. Joined by two combat divers, he climbed down onto the back of the submarine and jogged to the far end, as the entire vessel rolled and pitched in the heaving sea.

It quickly became clear that the three sailors who had been flung overboard had now drifted too far from the submarine to be thrown a line. And that’s when Lt Cdr Firdaus decided to dive into the sea in an attempt to reach the sailors who, by then, had drifted over 100 m from the submarine. The two combat divers jumped into the water after him.

At the bridge, Cdr Murali was faced with a difficult decision. The engines of INS Shankush had been turned off for the valve repair operation. And with men overboard, the engines were kept switched off because of the very real possibility of the drifting sailors being sucked into the powerful propeller.

“There were now six of my men in the sea, including Mogal,” says Cdr Murali. “I waited for the men to drift a certain distance away. Then I switched on the engines to low power, carefully manoeuvring the submarine around in their direction to begin the recovery.”

Two more sailors had been ordered onto the submarine’s back to help pull the six men on board. As the submarine edged towards Lt Cdr Firdaus and the two combat divers with him, he signalled to the submarine to proceed forward and rescue the other three men first, who by this time had drifted to over 200 m away. The submarine gurgled past Lt Cdr Firdaus and the two divers towards the three men. The sea held steady as they were carefully pulled back on to the submarine with some difficulty.

From the bridge of INS Shankush, Cdr Murali edged closer to his XO and the two combat divers in the water. “Finally, I manoeuvred the submarine close to the three,” says Cdr Murali. “Mogal told the two sailors to go and board the submarine first and that he would come last. They had been in the water for nearly 20 minutes. All three were tired by this time.”

Realising that the two combat divers were drifting again despite being highly qualified swimmers, Lt Cdr Firdaus grabbed the rope from the submarine and pushed himself towards the drifting men, offering to be a human bridge of sorts. He shouted to the two men to clamber over him and get to the submarine as quickly as possible.

Once again, the two divers pleaded with him to climb on board first. They would manage, they said. But the XO knew they hadn’t a chance of being pulled back on board, given how rapidly they were now drifting. “Do it now! We have no time. Climb over me, get to the submarine,” Lt Cdr Firdaus screamed through the spray. Finally, they obeyed—they knew it was their only chance of reaching the submarine. Holding on to the XO’s shoulders, the two divers pulled themselves into the submarine.

Now, only Lt Cdr Firdaus remained in the water. He began to pull himself up. At the precise moment that he was about to haul himself out of the sea, the swell caused INS Shankush to roll violently, hitting the officer in the head and throwing him back into the sea in a splash of blood. It was a devastating knock from a 1800-tonne hunk of metal. “He was knocked out,” says Cdr Murali.

The situation was now critical and Cdr Murali knew it was time to call for help. From the bridge, an emergency request was sent to the INS Shikra helicopter base in Mumbai, calling for a chopper to be dispatched immediately.

A few weeks earlier, a cargo vessel named MSC Chitra, coming from Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), had collided with another merchant vessel, MV Khalijia-III, about 9 km off Mumbai, spilling oil and strewing its massive containers over a sizeable area of the sea. This was a navigational hazard, forcing the submarine to approach slowly and with extra care.

“Mogal and the others were picked up around 9.15 am,” says Cdr Murali. “Then we started back to harbour, reaching around 7 pm There were people on the jetty. They informed us that Mogal had not made it. That’s when I knew I had lost my brave XO.”

The Shaurya Chakra citation now adorns a wall in Kerzin Mogal’s living room. It reads:

Lieutenant Commander Firdaus Darabshah Mogal displayed exceptional courage, unmatched show of fearless valour in the face of death and made the supreme sacrifice in saving the lives of six men.

Initially sensitive to questions, Kerzin is now used to them. “Somebody once asked, when he jumped into the water, did he not think about his child and his wife? And I say, no,” she says. “I know Firdaus. He was thinking of nothing but his men drowning.”

Excerpted from Rahul Singh and Shiv Aroor’s book India’s Most Fearless 2 with permission from Penguin India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.