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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

‘Knew disaster was close, had no time to lose’

Commodore Manoj Jha is deployed in the operations section of the Western Naval Command and supervised the rescue operations from four ONGC vessels that went adrift off Mumbai coast on May 17-18.

May 23, 2021 3:57:38 am
‘The search and rescue operation was massive, lasted 48 hrs,” said Commodore Manoj Jha. (Express photo)

(Written by Commodore Manoj Jha)

On May 17, we were preparing for Cyclone Tauktae after it made landfall in Gujarat. Till 9 am, we were unsure of its impact. But just 15 minutes later, we got the news that moorings of ONGC’s barge P305 had snapped. We knew a disaster was imminent and that we had no time to lose.

Members on the barge had sent distress calls to their owners, and the Flag Officer of the Offshore Defence Advisory Group had informed the Maritime Operations Centre about the developments.

As we began to monitor the situation, we learnt that P305 had started drifting towards an oil rig. We immediately began to prepare the crew of INS Kochi, and the naval war ship sailed out of the harbour at 11.15 am. Normally, the ship can travel at a speed of 30 knots, but due to severe weather conditions, we stuck to 12 knots. It took four hours for the ship to reach the vicinity of P305 barge.

The next update, between 10.30 and 11 am, was more unnerving: P305, with 261 crew members, had hit the oil rig.

Soon, another ship, INS Kolkata, was deployed for the rescue mission. It set sail around 1.15 pm, and a third ship departed at 4.30 pm.

As our ships were on their way, we were informed that barge GAL Constructor was drifting at Colaba Point, with water ingress in the engine room. It had 137 crew members.

When INS Kochi arrived near P305, the barge’s crew could not spot the rescue ship because of rough weather. Staff onboard INS Kochi reported that they had seen some crew members on the upper deck of P305. By 5.50 pm, the barge sank.

INS Kochi had three small boats but they could not be lowered into the sea due to strong winds and high waves. This also prevented crew members of P305 from reaching the 14 life rafts that were sent out. Fortunately, they were wearing lifejackets. Eventually, as the rescue operations continued, 125 crew members were pulled out and hauled up to INS Kochi. Many of them had cuts and fractures and were dehydrated. Some were in shock after witnessing the catastrophe.

Around 3 pm, INS Kolkata was still trying to rescue members onboard the GAL Constructor. We knew it would run aground and the plan was to tow it with a rope. Emergency towing vessel Water lily, hired by DG Shipping, was also sent out for the job, but they could not attach a towing rope either.

In the evening, there was another piece of bad news. We lost contact with Varaprada, a tugboat that had eventually reached GAL Constructor and was towing the barge. Later, it sank.

We also got the news that barge SS-03 had started drifting towards the Cauvery Oil Field and drillship Sagar Bhushan too had lost all its anchors and had started drifting north. INS Talwar told crew members onboard SS-03 to try and anchor the barge, and assured them that more rescue ships would arrive as weather improved. We also provided food for the staff on both the barges the next day.

It didn’t seem possible for rescue helicopters to take off on that day because of the bad weather, but pilots began to prepare for the operation at INS Shikra, the naval helibase at Colaba. Three P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft of the Navy were told to be ready, besides Dornier aircraft of the Indian Coast Guard and the Navy’s Chetak helicopters. Two Advanced Light Helicopters were also summoned from Goa.

At the crack of dawn on Tuesday, as the weather improved slightly, the first Sea King helicopter reached the site. Two Chetak helicopters were pressed into action for rescue and search. A total of three Sea Kings were used in the mission. Later, INS Betwa and INS Teg also joined the operations.

We rescued 188 people in the 48-hour-long mission. I have been in service since 1995 and have never been at the helm of such a massive operation.

Commodore Jha is deployed in the operations section of the Western Naval Command and supervised the rescue operations from four ONGC vessels that went adrift off Mumbai coast on May 17-18.

As told to Yogesh Naik

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