In one of the biggest off-shore search and rescue operations mounted by the Coast Guard and Navy, 637 men have been rescued from their vessels that went adrift in gale-force winds and high waves in the Arabian Sea during Monday’s Cyclone Tauktae, but the search is still on for at least 80 more men who are missing, officials said.
In all, one oil rig and four vessels servicing ONGC’s off-shore operations, and an unrelated freight ship, were caught in the cyclone as it barrelled its way past Mumbai on Tuesday.
The men who were stranded on the oil rig and in the four vessels — three of them barges — are maintenance staff working on ONGC off-shore sites, hired by contractors and sub-contractors for the oil PSU’s rigs and platforms in the Arabian Sea off the Mumbai coast.
Of the men rescued, 180 were from barge P305 but 81 remain missing from this vessel. The barge sank on Monday at 7 pm. There is no official confirmation of casualties yet.
Defence spokesperson Commander Mehul Karnik said, “We have rescued 180 persons from P305 which sank on Monday night. We are looking for the rest.’’
INS Kochi, a naval warship, is heading to Mumbai with survivors of P305 and is expected to arrive at the naval dockyard on Wednesday. Search and rescue operations will continue for the next three days.
B Kumar of AFCONS, the company that along with consortium partner Halani-Tes-Nauvata has been working with ONGC to revamp its unmanned offshore platforms in the Arabian Sea, said he would not comment on casualties as he hopes “positively for survivors”.
AFCONS said in a statement on Tuesday, “The chartered barge P305 along with its marine crew was owned and operated by M/s Durmast Enterprises Limited. P305 had a full complement of safety equipment including life jackets and life rafts for all persons on board. We believe all personnel safely evacuated before the vessel sank.”
All 137 men on a second barge, Gal Constructor, which ran aground near Palghar, have been rescued.
All 101 workers on Sagar Bhushan, the oil rig, have been rescued. Caught in the winds and buffeted by the waves on Monday, the rig had lost its anchors and started drifting north. Four ONGC charter-hired vessels rescued the rig with defence ships. Inspector General Anand Badola said the rig is being towed to Pipavav.
A third barge, SS03, is still adrift but the 202 men on board are reported to be safe, Navy and Coast Guard officials said. A tug boat has been sent to tow her to safety.
Rescue operations are also on for a multi-purpose vessel servicing ONGC called Great Ship Aditi.
A freight carrier, M V Daniel, transporting coal from Singapore to Mumbai with 17 crew on board, was helped to safety, officials said.
Ten ships of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard took part in the operations that began Monday afternoon. Two aircrafts, four helicopters joined the search as the weather cleared on Tuesday, said Captain D S Purohit of INS Shikra. One emergency towing vessel has also been pressed into service.
“This is one of the most challenging search and rescue operations in the last four decades. On Tuesday morning, we sent a P81 reconnaissance aircraft from INS Rajali for the search. At the crack of dawn, our Sea King and Chetak helicopters were also out in the sea.’’ said Vice Admiral M S Pawar of the Western Naval Command.
When asked why the vessels were not moved or evacuated earlier, officials said initial reports from ONGC and Afcons said the cyclone was not expected to hit the Mumbai High region and that its intensity was higher than expected.
An official aware of the developments said operations were currently focusing on survivors and that there was no official count of deaths so far.
Barge P305, which was officially declared sunk by the Indian Navy earlier today, sent distress signals on Monday after it got caught in high-speed winds of 150-180 km per hour and waves as high as 6-8 metres.
Coast Guard officials said P305 dashed against an unmanned rig of ONGC and water started entering the barge. It served as living quarters for the men working on the rig. Many of them are said to have jumped into the sea with life jackets on. Some of the survivors were winched up by naval helicopters on Tuesday.
One of the injured on board P305, Ravindra Singh, who worked as a cook on the barge, said he was among around 100 men who jumped into the choppy sea. “We sensed danger at around 4.45 pm on Monday, We wore life jackets and went on the deck. The weather was rough,” he said.
Sandeep Singh, a survivor of P305, said all he could think of was to return to his home in UP at the earliest. “We had a weather report about the cyclone, but our superiors failed to do anything about it,” he said.
An official release by ONGC said, “ONGC is taking all possible measures in coordination with ODAG (Offshore Defence Advisory Group) and MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) to ensure the safety of personnel and vessels.”
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