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137 saved on barge, its chief: ‘Asked to stay put during cyclone, refused’

Barge Master Agnelo Socorro Rebello said that he had, however, insisted on getting a tug boat to steer the vessel towards shore, and reached outer anchorage on May 16.

Written by Jayprakash S Naidu | Mumbai |
Updated: June 2, 2021 7:04:43 am
Gal Constructor ran aground in Palghar on May 18. (Express photo)

THE MASTER of Gal Constructor, an accommodation barge involved in ONGC’s operations off Mumbai, has said that the company which hired the vessel, Afcons Infrastructure Ltd, wanted him to keep his vessel in the operational area at sea during Cyclone Tauktae — and told him that the Master of P305, another accommodation barge, had already agreed to such a plan.

Barge Master Agnelo Socorro Rebello said that he had, however, insisted on getting a tug boat to steer the vessel towards shore, and reached outer anchorage on May 16. On May 18, the vessel ran aground in Palghar, and all 137 onboard were saved. P305 remained in the operational area and sank in the storm, killing 75 of the 261 people onboard.

Rebello also said that although Afcons sent a tug vessel after he insisted on getting the barge back to port ahead of the cyclone, the company allegedly “did not secure permission to take us inside the inner anchorage of the (Princess) dock despite my asking them to do so”. “Instead, they asked us to stay in outer anchorage, saying it’s a safe location,” he said.

As the cyclone neared Mumbai, both vessels lost their anchors in the early hours of May 17 and went adrift. At 6 pm that day, the tug vessel, M V Varaprada, sank with 11 of its 13 crew, after battling severe winds and waves, and water in the engine room the whole day. In the early hours of May 18, Gal Constructor ran aground.

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Speaking to The Indian Express over phone from Margao, his hometown in Goa, Rebello said that he submitted an oral statement detailing these charges on videoconference from his home at 3.30 pm on May 29 to the high-level committee set up by the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to probe the incidents triggered by the cyclone at the ONGC facility. “Whatever I have told you, I have told them,” Rebello said.

ONGC confirmed that it “facilitated the Enquiry Committee” by providing “technical support in setting up the video conferencing facility”.

Speaking to The Indian Express from Kalimpong in West Bengal, Gal Constructor’s Deck Officer Allwin Nishanth backed Rebello’s charge that an Afcons representative asked them to stay in the operational area citing the example of P-305. “We had to convince him with the facts to change his decision,” Nishanth said. On why the barge did not enter port, he said: “We did not get port permission to enter into sheltered waters or inside the port.”

Afcons, which had a charter agreement with the owners of Gal Constructor (M/s TVPL) and Varaprada (M/s Glory Shipping), did not respond to an email from The Indian Express seeking comment on Rebello’s charges. In emailed responses sent to The Indian Express earlier, Afcons had said that the Barge Master had the responsibility for the safety and security of all people on the vessel, and that the “charterer can only give suggestions”.

Cyclone Tauktae hit the area on May 17, when wind speeds rose to nearly 150-180 km/hr, and left a trail of destruction in its wake — a total of 86 people, onboard P305 and Varaprada, were killed and 188 others rescued.

Rebello said he had worked on barges for 37 years, and had experienced seven cyclones during this period. “I knew that Tauktae was going to be a big one. On May 13, I informed Afcons that the barge had to be tugged away and stationed in the inner anchorage of Princess Dock in Mumbai. I asked for two tugboats. On the night of May 14, I received just one, MV Varaprada, after which the tugging process began,” he said.

Gal Constructor was stationed near an oil rig in the south field of Bombay High, around 90 nautical miles (166.5 km) from the Mumbai shore.

“Afcons’ offshore coordinator told me to stay back in the south field, citing the example of P305. I told him there are five platforms surrounding me over here, that it’s going to be a vast cyclone and I would not stay back. I asked the representative to call his senior in Afcons. The senior then made contact over satellite phone and, as I stuck to my demand, sent Varaprada,” Rebello said.

On May 16, at around 7.30 pm, the tug and the barge reached Bombay Floating Lights (BFL), two-and-a-half hours from the pilot station of the dock’s inner anchorage. “But Afcons did not get us the port’s permission to take us inside the inner anchorage. It was their duty to book a berth in the inner anchorage and also provide pilots who would have tugged our barge inside the inner anchorage. During the rainy season, all our vessels are kept there,” he said.

According to Rebello, he tried contacting the Mumbai port authorities separately but received no response. “The Mumbai port authorities had issued a circular on May 14 that they would shut down all their operations due to the cyclone and no vessels will be allowed to enter or exit the port,” he said.

“Afcons decided that the anchor point near Alibaug was a safe location and so I asked Varaprada to divert me to that point. It took us three hours to reach,” he said.

“I have a message sent by their (Afcons) representative, which states that their management has decided that all vessels that have to return to work after the cyclone will remain in outer anchorage. I said ‘first take me inside the inner anchorage’ but they refused, possibly to save money and time,” the Barge Master said.

Deck Officer Nishanth said: “I had warned Afcons regarding the outcomes of the cyclone by mail on the night of May 13…I will not say they did not respond but the actions were not taken on time.”

In its emailed response sent earlier, Afcons had said that it responded to a distress call raised by the Barge Master, and alerted the Navy and other authorities.

“The charterer can only give suggestions. It was always the Barge Master’s prerogative to agree or disagree with the charterer’s suggestion and take action as he deemed fit in interest of the safety of the vessel and the people on board. Both Gal Constructor and Varaprada had reached a safe location by May 16 late evening,” it said.

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