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Friday, June 18, 2021

‘It was pitch dark, the lights on my lifejacket went out… At that point, I thought I was going to die…’

Varghese Sam Eralil was among the 261 people on board Barge P-305, that went adrift due to Cyclone Tautkae, before sinking in the Arabian Sea on May 17. The 27-year-old recounts a first-hand account of the incident.

Written by Varghese Sam Eralil |
Updated: May 22, 2021 9:03:50 am
Varghese Sam Eralil was on board Barge P305 when Cyclone Tauktae hit. (Express photo)

May 16. It was a normal night. We had dinner and wanted to go out to the deck, but it was too windy.

Despite the warnings regarding Cyclone Tauktae, everyone onboard barge P305 was sure they would ride out the rough weather, considering the vessel’s size and its eight strong anchors.

The weather reports suggested waves could rise up to 9 metres, which later became 12, and then 14. We could tell the wind was picking up. At some point, the barge started shaking, things fell off shelves, and snapping sounds came from the deck. We felt the winds were cyclonic.

But, ignoring all this, we decided to get some sleep and went inside our cabins.

Two or three hours later, we woke up to loud instructions, asking us to wear lifejackets and “be prepared”. Even then, we thought this was just a precaution.

Carrying our phones, wallets and passports, wearing coveralls and ditching our heavy safety shoes, we went to the office. The news was terrible: six of our eight anchors had snapped, which meant the vessel was pretty unstable.

Our biggest fear was it swaying a little too much and hitting a rig platform around 200 metres away. A platform has a lot of gas and oil lines. Colliding with those meant instant explosion, consuming our vessel too.

Then, our last two anchors also snapped. As the barge now swayed uncontrollably, we kept sending SOS, to the Navy, our base, over the radio, phone, WhatsApp.

Within seconds, the vessel had made contact with the platform. Luckily, we hit a spot where there were no pipes, but the impact was so hard, it left a hole in the base of the barge.

Water started coming in. As people at the bottom deck called out for help, we were still not sure exactly what was happening. Nobody had the time to tell us, and we still thought it would turn out okay, we were ready to deal with whatever happens.

Then, all of us were asked to reach the deck and deploy the life rafts — 12 on each side. But as we started inflating them, we realised almost all were damaged.

There was just one functioning life raft. Around 10 people immediately got in. However, even that raft was punctured when it hit the barnacles at the base of the vessel, and the men were thrown into the sea. It all happened in two-three minutes. Those who took that raft haven’t been found still.

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

As the rain intensified and visibility got lower, they told us to wait. Pulling the ship close to the barge with the waves so high risked a collision.

But by then, the barge started sinking. It was when it was halfway sunk that reality hit us: we had to abandon ship.

Leaving our luggage behind, we started jumping into the sea one by one.

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

I think I was the last to jump. I was scared. Maybe that’s what saved me too. I saw some of them jumping into the wrong place, and things falling on them.

The distance between the water and the tip of the vessel kept reducing. When it was 10-20 feet, I decided it was time. Thankfully, I jumped into a safe spot. I saw a group of people and swam towards them.

People reassured each other, “Are you okay?”, “It’s alright, we are getting out soon”, “The Navy is here”. We held hands so that the rescue team could spot us easily, our lifejackets had lights on them.

The time was 6.30 pm, I think. It was starting to get dark. When we looked around, we couldn’t spot any ships.

The water kept hitting my face, its salt burning my eyes. Sometimes we were pushed up into the air, sometimes the 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 the people around me. Some didn’t know swimming. They were panicking, flapping their hands and legs, tiring themselves out.

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

After almost three hours, we saw a Navy ship. We swam 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 would not be easy.

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

I heard people crying for help, calling their gods. Some wished to see their mothers.

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

When I opened my eyes again, it was around 12 am. I looked around and realised that the group I was with now only had six people.

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.

I saw people pushing each other, stepping on one another to get to the ladder. I was the last person to climb. I jumped on, but the person above me slipped and accidentally kicked me.

Thrown into the water, I searched for something to keep me afloat. I saw a buoy, hoping it had a rope attached, that it was stable. I shouted to the people on the ship to pull the buoy up.

But I soon realised there was no rope.

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

The waves at that point were very high. The ship put up flares. I could see them, but the waves were in the middle.

It was at that point I realised that I was all alone. There was no one and I had lost sight of the ship. It was pitch dark. Gradually, the lights on my lifejacket went out.

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

I had the weird feeling that the waves were taking me to the heart of the cyclone.

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

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

As daylight broke, I spotted a ship. With all my might, I tried to swim towards it. I had my whistle. I blew it.

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. I turned around and saw I had another ship behind me. It was the Navy. I was between two ships, and a Navy chopper was flying above me. 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.

Eralil, 27, is among the 261 survivors of barge P305, that sank following Cyclone Tauktae. As of Friday, more than 50 crew members were confirmed dead, and 15 were still missing.

As told to Meera Kalyani, Kochi

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