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Amid Cyclone Tauktae, one of the biggest offshore rescue operations by the Navy and Coast Guard

By May 16, a day before Cyclone Tauktae, 94 of 99 vessels in the Mumbai High area had returned to the shore. Among the vessels, with over 600 men on board, that did not was barge P305. The Sunday Express on what happened next — the SOSs that went out and the leap of faith that kept many going amid one of the biggest offshore rescue operations by the Navy and Coast Guard.

Written by Yogesh Naik , Jayprakash S Naidu |
Updated: May 23, 2021 4:24:47 pm
In all, 188 men were rescued from P305. Many had injuries after staying in water for over 12 hours. (Photo: PTI)

Hira Singh had never imagined he would ever need to jump into the sea. He has been in the “shipping line” since 2007, but he does not know how to swim. Once a driver, the Punjab-based Singh had joined a rigger at one of the drilling platforms in Mumbai High, ONGC’s offshore operations. He had boarded P305 six months ago, a barge that was a “hook up” vessel for one of the oil platforms at Heera oilfield of Mumbai High.

The “accommodation barge” was large enough to hold 260 other men — a motley group of plumbers, electricians, welders, among others. When they finished their shift on the platform, they came down to the barge, anchored 20 ft away. It was fitted with a gym and television sets. A cafeteria ensured food. Life was not great, but not bad either.

May 17 was the first time that Hira Singh came face to face with death. At 5 pm that day, with waves as high as 12 metres and the gusty winds of Cyclone Tauktae tearing around a sinking P305, he muttered a prayer and jumped into the water wearing a life jacket. Some of his colleagues had set off in a life raft.

“But the raft was sinking because it had holes. I saw my colleagues struggling to get off to save themselves,” Hira says.

“I did not want to jump off the barge, but I knew that if I stayed on it, I would be pulled into the water with it. So I took Wahe Guru’s name and jumped. I barely breathed for fear of swallowing water through my nose or mouth,” he recalls.

The warning of a cyclone forming on the west coast had come in early May, from the India Meteorological Department.

Fortunately for Hira, his ordeal was shortlived. He was rescued within three hours by INS Kochi, one of several ships part of the massive rescue operation mounted after the cyclone tore through the Arabian Sea, sending at least four vessels, including P305, adrift.

There were some who were rescued after more than 12 hours. Sandip Mahapatra, a helper, was rescued at 4.30 am after he had managed to stay alive 13 hours in the water. Indrajeet Sharma, a 33-year-old engineer, was rescued at 2 am after 11 hours.

In all, 188 men from P305 were rescued, some from the barge before it sank, and others from water. But at least 66 of Singh’s barge mates died — their bodies were brought to shore by rescue ships; 11 were unaccounted for as of Saturday evening.

The warning of a cyclone forming on the west coast had come in early May, from the India Meteorological Department. Different agencies, including the Maharashtra government, also put out several warnings asking vessels out at sea to start returning to the safety of shores closest to them.

Coast Guard Inspector-General Anand Badola says they sent two advisories to ONGC and the Flag Officer of the Offshore Defence Advisory Group, to get all the vessels working for it in Mumbai High to the shore.

Explained

Biggest rescue ops since 1978

IT IS after many years that a disaster of this magnitude has occurred off the Mumbai coast. And it is perhaps for the first time since the Dubai-bound Air India plane crash after take off from Mumbai in 1978, killing all 213 aboard, that the Navy and Coast Guard have had to mount such a big operation. This time, however, most of the men on board could be rescued despite weather challenges. Tauktae was the first severe cyclonic storm to get so close to Mumbai in 130 years.

ONGC has 342 installations, with over 7,000 men working on them daily. According to sources, by May 16, a day before the cyclone, as many as 94 of 99 vessels in Mumbai High had returned to the shore. Only three barges — P 305, Support Station 03 and GAL Constructor — and Varaprada, towing GAL Constructor, did not return.

Barges are flat-bottomed vessels, and are not meant for sailing in the sea. They mostly do not have their own engines, and have to be towed by a tug boat. A former Navy official said because of their design, barges get thrown from side to side in wind speeds of anything more than 20 knots (37 kmph).

Sunil Kumar Madesiya from UP, who was employed as a “helper” on P305, saw two other barges leaving the area well in advance of the cyclone. But, said the 20-year-old, the men in P305 were told that there was work to finish. “We were told by our seniors that the work will take a few more days to complete, and we will move only after that,” said Sunil, who said he managed to stay alive till he was rescued because he had “basic swimming skills”.

According to chief engineer Rahman Hussain Shaikh — among the last to leave the sinking ship — who was rescued by the Navy, Rakesh Ballav, the Master of the vessel, decided after reading the weather charts that the Mumbai coast would not be affected. Though there was a warning that wind speeds would reach 40 knots, Ballav decided the barge could stay on as this was in tropical storm category.

But he decided to move the barge 200 m away from the platform on May 16. According to information now emerging, the windspeed had already begun picking up that day. Those inside the barge had started sensing danger. Their fears came true a few hours later when, around midnight, two of its anchors tore loose. A barge is typically secured by multiple anchors placed in position by cable wires.

“By 8.30 am on Monday, all our anchors broke and we started drifting. Around 10 am, our barge hit the platform, developed a big hole through which water started pouring in,” Nadkar said. Unlike a ship, which is built in compartments, a barge is just one large single space. Soon, it was clear the barge would sink.

“I did not jump till the last minute. Once I jumped, I spotted a few of my colleagues and we held each other’s hands. I was floating with others for several hours. Some of my colleagues were pulled out after 12 hours. The Navy threw a safety net rope on us. We held on to it and they pulled us up,” said Nadkar.

“Well before the barge finally sank, the Master of the ship announced, ‘Abandon Ship’. Hearing this, many of the men jumped into the sea with some life rafts, but they all turned over. Those are the men now missing,” he said.

Rakesh Ballav, the barge Master, also jumped into the water along with them, even as some of the men on the barge decided to wait it out. Ballav was missing until Saturday.

The first message of a barge adrift in the sea, 75 nautical miles southwest of Prongs Light House off Colaba in south Mumbai, was received by the Indian Navy at 9.15 am on May 17. Sources in the Shipping Ministry said the P305 captain delayed calling for help.

For the Navy and Coast Guard, the distress call from P305 was one of a series of such calls for help they would receive throughout the day from the seas of Maharashtra and Gujarat, perhaps the most challenging in peacetime attended to by the Western Naval Command.

By 11.15 am, INS Kochi sailed out of the harbour. The cyclone was in full flow, and the warship’s progress was impeded by winds of over 110 kmph. At 3 pm, INS Kochi reached P305, but Navy officials said the warship could not steer any closer for fear of bumping into the barge. Only 35 people could be rescued initially, but by the end of the second day, 125 people had been plucked out of the water.

“When I saw the Navy, I knew I would not die and I kept fighting to stay alive in the water. To keep our hopes up, the Navy kept blowing horns to tell us they were there for us,” said Mahapatra, a 27-year-old who had been contracted for work only two months ago.

On the morning of May 18, when the cyclone passed, the Coast Guard and Navy intensified their search and rescue operations.

A senior naval officer said, “Our officers at Western Naval Command, DG Shipping office, Coast Guard, key officers of the home, defence, and shipping ministries spent a sleepless night. At 6.30 am on Tuesday, the first Sea King helicopter was dispatched from INS Shikra (the helibase of Indian Navy). We managed to save 186 people from barge Pappa 305.”

Until Saturday, the search operations had also managed to recover 66 bodies of the men who did not survive the P305 mishap.

But it was not just P 305 in distress during Cyclone Tauktae. Two other barges, SS-03 and GAL Constructor; drill ship Sagar Bhushan; and tugboat Varaprada were also in trouble.

Varaprada itself sank with 11 of its 13 crew.

Coast Guard helicopters made repeated sorties to Palghar to rescue all 137 people on board of GAL Constructor. All 201 people on board SS-03 and the 101 on Sagar Bhushan were also rescued without casualties.

Deputy Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Muralidhar Pawar said this was one of the biggest search and rescue operations mounted by the Western Naval Command in four decades. It was the same for the Coast Guard. In all, there were eight Navy ships, eight immediate support vessels of the Navy, nine naval helicopters, three naval reconnaissance planes, five Coast Guard vessels, two Coast Guard helicopters, and two Coast Guard Dornier planes deployed for the search. ONGC also deployed five helicopters to look for survivors.

The tragedy has raised many questions about the complex web of contractors, vessel chartering companies and owners who run ONGC’s offshore operations The barges rescued at Mumbai High had been chartered by Afcons Infrastructure Ltd, which said in a statement that while it chartered the barge, it is the captain who takes the final call on safety.

Afcons announced compensation between Rs 35 lakh and Rs 75 lakh to each of the families who lost their kin in the P305 mishap. ONGC has also blamed the P305 master.

This raises more questions, especially about hiring of crew for these vessels: were the masters of the barges qualified to read complicated weather charts? Or were they under pressure to keep going? What is the safety training?

These are questions for which the high-level committee, set up by the Centre to investigate the incident, will likely seek answers.

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