A fishing boat carrying four crew members was found off the coast of Palghar district two days after its disappearance sparked fears of a hijack and possible repeat of 26/11 on its 12th anniversary.
The fishermen — Dyaneshwar Tandel (51), Dilip Tandel (55), Jagannath Tandel (61) and Praveen Dhanu (38) — had set out from their home in Palghar’s Satpati village at 6 am on Thursday. They were expected to return with the day’s catch by 5 pm.
However, their boat, Agnimata, failed to return that night. With no sight of the vessel even on Friday morning, the village’s fishermen’s society held a meeting. Dyaneshwar Tandel’s wife Sujata registered a missing person’s complaint at Satpati police station.
The vessel’s disappearance deeply worried the district administration. The small vessel was not equipped with an Automatic Identification System transponder — which allows the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard to keep track of vessels in Indian waters — or a GPS. “The way the boat disappeared without a trace, we were afraid it may have been hijacked by someone,” said Palghar Police spokesperson Sub Inspector Sachin Navadkar.
Worried that events of exactly 12 years ago, when Pakistani terrorists hijacked an Indian fishing boat on their way to Mumbai, may repeat themselves, the district police alerted the Navy, Coast Guard, Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad, Mumbai Police, Maharashtra Maritime Board, Fisheries department and Gujarat government.
Villagers also sent out two fishing boats in search of Agnimata. However, the search teams had to return to shore by sunset.
Meanwhile, a local fisherman named Pradeep Patil told the police that he had spotted Agnimata at 5 pm on Thursday while fishing in his own boat, Rajdhani. “Patil found Agnimata drifting in the water with its engine dead and sail unfurled,” said Sudhir Dhayarkar, Assistant Police Inspector, Satpati police station.
Patil made a note of Agnimata’s location on his GPS system but did not tow the vessel back to shore. “Patil told the crew of Agnimata that he would return in an hour after having caught enough fish and take them back home. He did not expect Agnimata to go anywhere since its engine was not working,” said Dhayarkar.
Within minutes of Rajdhani sailing away, a strong gust of wind blew the helpless Agnimata further out into the sea. When Patil returned an hour later, he could not spot Agnimata anywhere. Unable to contact the boat since the crew did not have either a wireless communication system or mobile phones, Patil returned to Satpati.
At 6 am on Saturday, four boats — Mahalakshmi, Deep Lakshmi, Matoshree, Om Sai Ram — set out in differing directions to search a perimeter around the GPS location which Patil had recorded the previous day. All vessels were equipped with food and water for the missing fishermen and with wireless systems to contact the police on the shore.
At 10 am, Mahalakshmi’s captain, Bharat Pagdhare, radioed shore to inform the police that he and his crew had spotted Agnimata nine nautical miles from shore. Shortly after, the missing men were brought back home. “The missing fishermen had run out of food since they had only packed enough for one day, but they had enough water to drink. They were in good health,” said Dhayarkar.
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