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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

‘I thought I was going to die’: Survivor’s first-hand account after ONGC vessels went adrift off Mumbai coast

As we waited, with our entire luggage ready to go, we saw that our barge was sinking. When we were halfway sunk, reality hit us: we have to abandon the ship.

Written by Meera Kalyani | Kochi |
Updated: May 21, 2021 9:34:11 pm
Cyclone Tautkae, Cyclone ONGC Vessel resue, Barge P305 crew, Indian Navy Barge P305 crew memeber interview, ONGC vessels rescue operation, Cyclone tauktae missing vessels, Cyclone tauktea ONGC vessels, Indian Navy rescue, Cyclone tauktea rescue operations, P305 barge sinks, Indian Express newsDespite the warnings, everyone onboard P-305 was sure to ride out the rough weather, considering its size and eight strong anchors. (Picture credit: Varghese Sam Eralil, Express Photo).

Varghese Sam Eralil was among the 261 people on board the P-305 barge that drifted off Heera oil fields in Bombay High area owing to the high-speed winds and heavy rainfall caused by Cyclone Tautkae on Monday (May 17).

The 27-year-old recounted a first-hand account of the incident and his experience on the high seas to indianexpress.com.

May 16. It was a normal night. We all had dinner and wanted to go out to the deck. It was pretty windy, so we were not allowed to.

Despite the warnings, everyone onboard P-305 was sure to ride out the rough weather, considering its size and eight strong anchors.

The weather reports we got suggested waves could rise up to 9 metres, which later on became 12 and then 14. We could tell the wind was picking up pace as we felt the pressure on the starboard side of the barge. At some point, we felt the winds were cyclonic.

The barge was shaking. There were snapping sounds coming from the deck, things were falling out of shelves. Ignoring all this, we decided to get some sleep and went inside our cabin.

Two or three hours later, we woke up to loud instructions, asking us to wear a lifejacket and “be prepared”. Even at that point, we thought everything was okay and this was just a precautionary measure.

Carrying our phones, wallets and passports, wearing coveralls and ditching our heavy safety shoes, we went to the office, trying to figure out what was actually happening.

Terrible news awaited us at the office: six of our eight anchors had snapped away. Our barge was holding on with just two anchors, which meant the vessel was pretty unstable and capable of moving in multiple directions.

At that point, our biggest fear was the vessel swaying a little too much and hitting the platform around 200 metres away.

A platform has a lot of pipes, which have gas and oil lines. Colliding with those pipes meant instant explosion. We were sure that if the platform exploded, the explosion would consume our vessel too.

As we played out the scenario in our minds, news came that our last two anchors had also snapped. We were now swaying with the waves and going with the wind.

Constant SOS signals were sent to the Navy, our base, through radio, phone and WhatsApp as the barge started to sway uncontrollably.

As waves washed up to the deck and the barge grew heavier, my colleagues and I saw the vessel was moving towards a platform. Within seconds, we made contact. Luckily, we hit a spot where there were no pipes but the impact was so bad it created a hole in the base of our vessel.

Rescue operations underway after ONGC vessels went adrift off the Mumbai coast. (Express Photo)

By that time, people from the cafeteria and the rest of the bottom-most deck were calling out for help, asking people to help clear out the water. At first, we thought it was the water washed up by the waves but soon we realised the barge was heavily damaged after hitting the platform.

Even until this point, we were in the dark. No one had a clear idea about what was happening, nobody had the time to tell us. We thought everything was okay and we were ready to deal with whatever happens.

Meanwhile, all of us were asked to reach the deck and deploy life rafts. There were 12 of them on each side of the barge. While inflating, we realised that almost all of them were damaged.

There was just one functioning life raft. Around 10 people immediately got in. However, the boat was punctured after it hit the barnacles at the base of the vessel and all onboard the raft was thrown into the sea.

It all happened within a span of two-three minutes. They were out of sight and still haven’t been found.

Deploying another life raft was out of the question. The sea was too rough. We decided to wait for the Navy ship, stationed just two or three miles away from us, to give us the next instructions.

As the rain intensified and visibility got lower, they told us to wait till the weather cleared out so that they could come closer to our barge. With waves so massive, pulling the ship close to the barge was not an option due to a looming risk of collision.

As we waited, with our entire luggage ready to go, we saw that our barge was sinking. When we were halfway sunk, reality hit us: we have to abandon the ship.

We left our luggage and started jumping into the sea one by one. It was pretty scary.

The barge now was entirely on its back. When the turn came for me and my friends to jump, we were already 50-60 feet up in the air. We looked down at the water and hesitated.

I think I was the last to jump in the water. I was scared and I waited a long time before I made the jump. Maybe that’s what saved me too. I saw some of them jumping into the wrong place, heavy things falling on them.

The distance between the water and the tip of the vessel kept on reducing. When it was just a matter of 10-20 feet, I decided it was time. Thankfully, I had jumped into a safe spot. I spotted a group of people with life jackets on and swam towards them.

Those stranded on Barge P305 being hauled up on to INS Kochi, in Mumbai Wednesday. (Express photo)

I saw people around me reassuring each other. “Are you okay?” “It’s alright, we are getting out soon.” “The Navy is here.” We held hands to stay in a group so that the rescue team could spot us easily.

We had lights on our life jackets. We hoped it would make it easier to spot us. The time was 6. 30pm I think.  It was starting to get dark.

We thought we would be immediately rescued by the Navy. But when we looked around, we couldn’t spot any ships.

Almost two hours had passed since we jumped into the water, which kept hitting my face, its salt burning my eyes. Sometimes we were pushed up into the air, sometimes the massive waves submerged us.

Even for an experienced person, after a while, saltwater triggers gag reflex and uncontrollable cough. I was uncomfortable.

But then I looked at people around me. Some didn’t know swimming. They were panicking, flapping their hands and legs, eventually tiring themselves.

We were a group of 15-16 people. Waves kept separating us, but we did not give up. We kept swimming towards each other. We included many of them who were floating in the water. Our group was getting bigger.

After almost three hours, we saw a Navy ship. We went towards it. But just as we reached close enough, it started raining, making the sea violent again. People panicked. With no visibility and massive waves, each of us realised the rescue will not be easy.

I heard people crying for help, calling their gods. Some of them wished to see their mothers. Everyone was emotional.

I decided to close my eyes for a second. It was mainly because of the burning sensation I had due to the saltwater. I was floating blindly.

I opened my eyes to check the time. It was around 12. I looked around and realised the group of people I was with, the group which was getting bigger, now only had six people.

Ships undertaking rescue operations after ONGC vessels went adrift off the Mumbai coast. (Express photo)

Before I could process that, we again got close enough to the Navy rescue ship. They threw us a rope ladder and everyone at once started reaching out for it. Panic ensued once again.

I saw people pushing each other, stepping on one another to get to that ladder. I was the last person to climb. I jumped on, waiting for the person above me to move.  But he slipped and accidentally kicked me.

I was pushed down. Back in the water, I quickly searched for something to keep me afloat. I saw a buoy, hoping it had a rope attached, that it was stable. I told the people on the ship to pull the buoy up.

But I soon realised there was no rope and it was just a free-floating buoy.

I did not lose hope, not yet. I tried swimming with the buoy towards the ladder. But all in vain as a wave out of nowhere pushed me away further. Within minutes, I was miles away from the ship. It was out of sight.

The waves at that point were very high, separating me and the ship, which now put up flares. I could see it all but there were these massive waves in front of me.

It was at that point I for the first time realised I was alone. There was no one and I had lost sight of the ship. It was pitch dark. The lights on my lifejacket went out. I was being swayed away by the waves.

At that point, I thought I was going to die.

I felt like all hopes were lost. I had a weird feeling the waves were taking me to the heart of the cyclone.

I decided to gather up my strength and swim. But I was too far away. I stopped and played a couple of scenarios in my mind. Maybe I will get washed up in Gujarat. Or Oman. I might find a platform nearby, find my shelter there or maybe get help in the morning.

But one thought I constantly had was about my death. I might die of hunger and fatigue. With that thought, I tried to get some sleep before a wave washed my face only 30 seconds later. This cycle continued till it was 5.30 or 6 in the morning.

Daylight broke. I looked around and saw a ship. With all my might, I tried to swim towards it. I had my whistle. I blew it with all my might.

The ship honked, probably acknowledging my efforts. It came towards me and turned a little to reveal a rescue zone, with several people and a ladder at bay.

But I was too weak by now, the waves had drained me. I turned around and saw I had another ship behind me. It was the Navy. I was between two ships, a navy chopper flying above me and that’s when I knew I was getting out of here.

The rescuers pulled me out somehow. But the worst was yet to hit me. Bodies that were yet to be identified waited for me. More than the trauma I had just endured, it was the death of my close friends that shook me.

I also saw a couple of my friends who had made it. We hugged. But I am still waiting to hear from the rest of them.

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