In the early hours of Monday, the cyclone Tauktae hit the shores of Mumbai with a wind speed of nearly 150-180 Km/hour resulting in 6 to 8 meters high waves in the Arabian sea. Oil Natural Gas Corporation has several key production sites off the Mumbai coast called Bombay high with various vital installations and drilling rigs. Barges are used for drilling and exploration for oil fields, these also serve as living quarters for men working on the offshore rigs.
On Monday, Barge Papaa–305 which was operating 38 nautical miles off the Mumbai coast was hit hard by the high sea swell and gusty winds. The anchors of this barge gave away and the moorings snapped due to the gusty and inclement weather of the ferocious cyclone causing the vessel to start drifting in the rough sea. Eventually, the whole barge started to tilt and sank in the deep sea after hitting some rocks. A total of 261 persons were there onboard the barge when the incident occurred.
Soon after receiving a distress call from the barge, ships of the Indian Navy – INS Kochi and INS Kolkata were deployed for the rescue mission. Helicopters could not be launched for the rescue due to the severe weather conditions in the beginning.
When the conditions improved INS Beas, INS Betwa, and INS Teg were too deployed along with Naval choppers and P81 aircraft for aerial search and rescue. ONGC vessels and coast guard too joined the operations. Out of the total 261 workers onboard, 186 have been rescued so far while 49 confirmed casualties were being reported. At the time of writing, this article 26 workers were still missing and one hopes they are found as soon as possible.
This operation is being described as the biggest search and rescue operation on India’s western seaboard. One survivor, Satish Narvad, said “The person in charge of us asked us to wear life jackets be ready. We wore jackets and jumped into the sea. ” The weather made it difficult for the Navy to pull in people from the sea/barge towards the rescue ship. Also, most people who took the raft instead of jumping into the sea unfortunately perished.
“It was a horrific situation on the barge. With life jackets on, I jumped into the sea and swam in the waters for seven to eight hours. I had the determination to stay alive. I was ultimately rescued by the Navy,” workman Manoj Gite, who hails from Kolhapur, said.
“It is because of the Navy that we all are alive and safe today, otherwise we don’t know what would have happened to us,” another survivor said.
As the barge sank in the sea amid darkness of night, the crew was scattered here and there. We had to deal with huge waves and gale winds. It was something we had not experienced in all our lives. We still can fathom how we survived,” yet another survivor recalled.
ONGC blamed the change in course of the cyclone for this tragic incident, however, IMD dismissed these claims. IMD sources said they warned ONGC frequently about the approaching cyclone. Earlier, the ONGC rejected reports that it didn’t “remove” barges after repeated warnings from the Indian Coast Guard. The Oil Ministry has set up a three-member committee to enquire into the sequence of events leading to the drifting of the barge.
Barges are like floating townships 3-4 storeyed high, they cannot be moved at a short notice as they are held in position by 8 anchors 3-4 Km in length which needs the help of another vessel to be lifted. The IMD predicted the cyclone well in advance, one hopes the committee looks into it in a free and fair way as to why the necessary steps to safeguard the workers were not taken.