The speedboat that capsized off the Mumbai coastline on Wednesday after hitting a submerged rock had taken an undesignated route to reach the site of the proposed Shivaji memorial statue to catch up with three other vessels headed for a ceremonial function at the site, the Mumbai Police has found in its initial probe.
One man, a worker of the Shiv Sangram party, drowned while 24 others were rescued from the speedboat named MRM-1.
The probe has further revealed that the boat, which had a capacity to ferry 13 to 15 people, including the crew, was carrying at least 10 extra passengers. Also, it was not carrying adequate number of lifejackets.
On Thursday, The Indian Express had reported that not only was the boat overcrowded, it was also not part of the official entourage organised by the Maharashtra PWD that organised the function to mark commencement of work on the statue.
“As the vessel was arranged at the last minute, it was running late. To catch up with the three other vessels, the speedboat took a shorter route cutting close to Prongs Lighthouse, which is known to have submerged rocks in the vicinity. The boat didn’t follow the designated route. Other than taking a shorter route, it also was speeding and was damaged when it hit a rock… Speedboats have fibreglass bodies that cannot withstand a hit,” said a senior police officer.
Conditions at sea were normal on Wednesday, and the speedboat was cruising when the mishap occurred. Within minutes, the boat saw ingress of water up and was inundated up to almost knee-level. Panic set in amid a scramble for the few lifejackets available, causing an imbalance on an already listing vessel.
Even as marine experts concurred with the police’s assessment that the shorter route was dangerous on account of submerged rock and previous wreckages, the incident also exposed multiple chinks in emergency protocol at sea.
For one, sources in the Coast Guard said the agency received its first alert about the incident from a journalist on board the vessel. “We are not aware if the speedboat had an emergency position indicating radio beacon or a search and rescue transponder or an automatic identification system or even a basic wireless to give out a distress call as nothing was seen on our systems. Vessels are required to be fitted with one of these systems to help us locate them,” said a senior coast guard official.
On Wednesday, the crucial information that the boat was 200 metres off Prongs Lighthouse was shared by the journalist. “With was no clarity on which vessel needed assistance, one of our ships pressed into the operation searched a barrage, thinking it was the vessel in distress. The first clear picture emerged once our hovercraft reached the spot and two Chetaks and a Seaking chopper gave images of the distressed vessel. Even then, we weren’t aware of the number of people onboard or even its name. We learnt the vessel’s name only when it was towed to Sassoon Dock,” the official said.
The Coast Guard ended up getting crucial details wrong even in its press statement. “At about 1615 hrs, report received by COMDIS2 about capsizing of a boat near to Location of Shivaji Smarak (2.6 km west of Nariman Point) from state administration. Boat belongs to Maharashtra Government and was carrying senior officials including Chief Secretary. ACV H 192 diverted and reached location within 15 minutes,” its statement read. The boat was in fact a privately-owned speedboat, and the chief secretary and other dignitaries were on board a different vessel that returned safely.
In addition, during the course of the rescue operation, the Coast Guard also informed the press that all members on board were safe. “All are safe. This information has been received from state government,” the statement said. It had to be later brought to the notice of the agency that one passenger was missing.
Meanwhile, the marine arm of the Mumbai Police claimed that as soon as they learnt of the mishap, they engaged a private boat that carried out the initial rescue operations. However, Peasants and Workers Party legislator Jayant Patil, whose passenger boat conducted the rescue, told The Indian Express that he in fact received a call from Srinivas Jadhav, officer on special duty to PWD Minister Chandrakant Patil. Jadhav was on board MRM-1, and Patil dispatched his boat that rescued 16 people from the stranded vessel.
The details of the first distress call are also unclear. According to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the first call to its disaster control cell was received around 4.16 pm from the Mumbai city collector’s office.
A source in the PWD said, “Shyam Misal, a deputy engineer of the PWD, made a call to legislator Vinayak Mete and then to Shivaji Jondhale (district collector), who then called a subordinate and asked him to inform the BMC disaster cell.” Misal was also on board MRM-1.
According to the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB), the location of the distressed vessel was shared by the chief secretary. Vikram Kumar, CEO of the MMB, said, “The boat is registered with MMB. These vessels ply within five nautical miles where mobile range in available.” Kumar didn’t elaborate if the vessel had any mechanism to use in times of distress. “The probe will look into whether the boat was speeding and if flouted any safety norms.”
Daulat Desai, director of the state disaster cell, said they didn’t receive a call from the the chief secretary, but from an official in the PWD office. “He informed us of the mishap but the information on the location of the vessel and its name wasn’t known,” he added.
Sources said that the preliminary inquiry has indicated that there were around 15 life jackets on MRM-1. “Vessels are required to carry life jackets one-and-half times of the members on the vessel so that if some are faulty, they could be immediately replaced. However, in this case, the vessel was carrying over 15 jackets, but as it was overcrowded, those fell short. The person who drowned was among those who wasn’t given a lifejacket,” said the police officer.