Defence ships and offshore vessels of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) recovered 26 bodies Wednesday from the Arabian Sea where barge P305 working for ONGC sank following Cyclone Tauktae. Search continues for at least 61 more people who remain missing.
Indian Navy Commodore Ajay Jha, who is supervising the rescue operations, said the bodies, brought ashore Wednesday morning, would be handed over to the Mumbai port police for completion of formalities.
The missing include around 50 men onboard P305, and at least 11 on another vessel, tug boat Varaprada, which is missing, Navy officials said. The search operations would continue for another three days at least, said Jha.
The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas announced a high-level inquiry into “lapses and gaps” in the system. It will probe the sequence of events leading to the ONGC support vessels left stranded by the cyclone, see whether warnings by the India Meteorological Department and other statutory authorities were acted upon or not, and if the SOP for securing vessels and disaster management was followed.
A statement by the ministry said, “Several vessels of ONGC with more than 600 people on board were stranded in offshore areas during Cyclone Tauktae. The stranding, drifting and subsequent events have led to loss of several lives.”
The Indian Express reported on Wednesday that the Coast Guard had sent two weather advisories to ONGC and Flag Officer Offshore Defence Advisory Group, that all vessels in the Mumbai High areas should return to the shore. Coast Guard officials said they had informed the Union Home Ministry and Defence Ministry that they sent one warning on May 11, and the second on May 13.
On Monday evening, INS Kolkata had rescued two of Varaprada’s crew, who were found afloat on a life raft. Officials said there had been zero communication with the vessel since 2 pm on Monday. The Commodore said, “We rescued two crew and they told us that the vessel Varaprada is missing… The two did not know about the rest, they said the vessel had sunk and 13 of them had jumped (into the sea).”
A survivor of P305, Dharmendra Singh, said the vessel had crashed into an unmanned rig, leaving a big hole in it.
Alam Shaikh, who owns Alamgir Ship Management and Engineering Services Private Limited, said his brother Rahman Shaikh (48) was the chief engineer on P305. Pointing out that the vessel belonged to the Ocean Diving firm, Shaikh said, “When Ocean 303 belonging to the same company came back to the shore much before Tauktae, why did the captain of P305 decide to stay back?”
The crew of P305 was managed by Udya Shipping. Shaikh said he heard about its sinking through one of his contacts in the business, who heard it over the radio communications between the vessels out for rescue on Monday. “Since then my family has been running from pillar to post. Neither the owners of P305 nor the crew management company is responding. P305 is at least 25 years old and was bought from Malaysia and renovated. I managed the crew for two years and found the working conditions bad and left,” Shaikh said.
It is one of the biggest off-shore search and rescue operation mounted by the Coast Guard and Navy. pic.twitter.com/370cRFPI3I
— The Indian Express (@IndianExpress) May 19, 2021
Deputy Commissioner of Police (Ports) Ganesh Shinde said four bodies had been handed over to police and the remaining would be handed over soon.
A spokesperson for Afcons, whose construction barges working on an ONGC project were involved in the accident, said, “Our immediate focus is to locate and rescue the missing personnel as quickly as possible… We will extend our fullest support, including financial assistance, to the bereaved families.”
Rajesh Shahi, who owns Varaprada, said his tug was towing barge Gal Constructor to the coast. “The vessel was in touch with us till 2 pm on Monday and then there was no contact. I cannot say whether the vessel has sunk or is missing. The Navy has not told us names of the two who have been rescued. I have given a list of all the 11 missing employees to the Port police, Coast Guard and Navy.”
#Watch: Indian Naval ships and aircraft are presently undertaking search and rescue operations of the missing crew members of accommodation barge P-305, which sank on May 17. #CycloneTauktae pic.twitter.com/D1BVgSri82
— The Indian Express (@IndianExpress) May 19, 2021
Apart from INS Kochi and Kolkata, Naval ships Talwar, Betwa Beas and Teg, and helicopters and Coast Guard ships are part of the rescue operations.
Coast Guard officers said that other vessels not connected to the incidents at Mumbai High had also sent distress signals. On Wednesday, one of its ships tugged to safety vessel MV Sangeeta that was taking in water; another was sent for assistance to MV Samarpan, which was adrift due to total power failure off Diu coast, with 14 on board. It also assisted tug boat Sudhir Mulji that ran aground in the Pipavav port limits, and a fishing boat with six crew members near Mumbai.
The probe panel set up by the government includes Amitabh Kumar, Director General of Shipping; S C L Das, Director General of Hydrocarbons, and Nazli Jafri Shayin, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Defence. It can include members if need be, and has been told to submit its report within one month. —with inputs from ENS, Delhi