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Inside Indian Navy’s daring deep-sea rescue of 600 men from sinking vessels

A total of five vessels with 714 personnel on-board were out in the sea when cyclone Tauktae struck. Rescuers evacuated 628 people from the vessels; they also recovered 76 bodies. (Photo: AFP)Premium
A total of five vessels with 714 personnel on-board were out in the sea when cyclone Tauktae struck. Rescuers evacuated 628 people from the vessels; they also recovered 76 bodies. (Photo: AFP)

  • Battered by a cyclone, an Afcons Infrastructure barge began to sink on 17 May. Then, four vessels in the vicinity also lost control. The Indian Navy received five separate SOS calls in a matter of hours, with the lives of 714 people on-board five vessels that were carrying out work for ONGC at risk

MUMBAI : Between 9.15 and 9.30am on 17 May, as cyclone Tauktae was busy ravaging parts of the western coast, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Operations Centre in Kochi, Kerala, received an SOS that the anchor ropes of the construction barge Papaa-305 had given way.

The barge, a flat-bottomed vessel, had been hired by the Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) Ltd. It was engaged in offshore drilling in the Arabian Sea and had dozens of personnel on board. The fraying of the ropes left the Papaa-305 adrift and in danger of sinking.

“The moment we realized that there were 261 people on-board, we immediately ordered our first ship, INS Kochi, to sail out," said commodore Manoj Jha, a 30-year veteran of the Indian Navy.

The INS Kochi set sail at 11.15am and by the time it reached the Papaa-305, the barge had collided with an oil platform nearby and was flooded.

Thus, began the biggest and most dramatic offshore search and rescue operation ever carried out in the Arabian Sea in the aftermath of Tauktae—the most powerful cyclonic storm to strike India’s west coast in 23 years—which made landfall in Gujarat on 16 May.

Over the following two days, rescue personnel braved winds that gusted to 120 kilometres per hour, waves which rose to a height of 5-7 metres, and torrential rain that blurred visibility.

Jha and his team had been prepping to deal with Tauktae over the weekend of 15 and 16 May, readying their ships and air stations with all hands on deck. Jha, posted in the operations section of the Western Naval Command, steered and supervised the rescue operation in which 3,000 personnel from the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, ONGC, Directorate General of Shipping, and the Mumbai Port Trust took part.

On that fateful 17 May morning, the Navy received five separate SOS calls in a matter of hours. The lives of 714 people were at risk. “We knew that the cyclone’s landfall would happen in Gujarat. We expected some impact there and thought that we may have to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in the aftermath. So, on the night of 16 May, we had readied our ships and air stations like we do when we are going to war," Jha said in an interview over the phone from his Mumbai office.

Jha’s ambit of responsibility includes operations in the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the western side of the Indian Ocean.

Multiple SOS calls

Even as rescuers on the INS Kochi tried to manage the situation on-board the stricken Papaa-305, an alert arrived that another vessel, Support Station 3, was adrift with 96 crew members on-board. As Jha and his team processed the information, they received one more SOS: Gal Constructor, another barge, was stranded with 137 people on-board. The INS Kochi was deployed to rescue people on the Papaa-305 and the INS Kolkata sailed to reach the Gal Constructor.

“We realized that the Gal Constructor was getting into shallower water and that if not pulled back, it may run aground," Jha said.

“But we knew that it won’t sink. While the crew was panicking and wanted to abandon the barge, we continued to advise them not to jump. The moment people jump, they get scattered and it is difficult to rescue them. If they continue to stay on the ship till it sinks, we can get them all evacuated," he added.

Resources were limited and had to be prioritized. Jha’s team suggested to the agencies engaged in the rescue operation to reach out to the Mumbai Port Trust and ask the agency to mobilize its towing vessel Water Lily because larger ships may not be able to get into shallow waters. The Water Lily was diverted to rescue the Gal Constructor, freeing the INS Kolkata.

The Coast Guard vessel ICG Samrat was also near the Gal Constructor for rescue and support operations.

By 5.30pm, the Papaa-305 had sunk and all survivors were in the sea.

“So, we diverted the INS Kolkata to the Papaa-305. And on its way, we saw two life rafts floating and decided to pick up the survivors. But as we rescued them, we realized that there was another vessel called Varaprada with 13 people on-board, which also needed to be rescued," said Jha.

Demands on the resilience and energy of rescue personnel had been mounting, but they were unflinching. “Despite the weather conditions, we continued the search operation through the night. We did not want to lose the golden hours (a short span of time after an injury or accident when the odds of saving a person’s life are the highest). And we picked up 86 survivors through the night. Though this was a risky operation for our own people, we had to think of the people we could save," said Jha.

For Jha, what sets the sea rescue apart is that his team bore the brunt of the cyclone unlike in typical rescue and relief efforts that are launched after a catastrophe has passed.

“I would term this as an unprecedented operation," he said.

Vessels in distress

A total of five vessels with 714 personnel on-board were out in the sea when cyclone Tauktae struck. Rescuers evacuated 628 people from the vessels; they also recovered 76 bodies. The numbers on-board were high because some vessels doubled up as living quarters for the personnel working on offshore rigs.

These vessels were carrying out work for India’s largest oil and gas explorer, ONGC, which has major production installations and drilling rigs located in Mumbai offshore, whose fields contribute roughly 70% of the crude oil and natural gas that ONGC uses as input for domestic production.

Three construction barges and a boat chartered by Afcons Infrastructure Ltd were working for ONGC. The Papaa-305, which sank and reported the most casualties, had 261 personnel on-board. Owned by Durmast Enterprises Ltd, the barge was chartered by a consortium led by Afcons Infrastructure. Usually, a barge is a vessel that is mainly used for transporting cargo. A construction barge, however, is used for marine construction purposes as it can unload the sand, soil, and dredged material at the site.

The barge’s captain, companies say, decided to stay put near the platform where it was working when the cyclone hit. His confidence was based on the eight anchors that held it in place.

By midnight of 16 May, six of its eight anchors had snapped, making the vessel highly unstable. It eventually drifted and crashed into a nearby platform. The collision broke the hull of the barge, leading to rapid ingress of water. As the barge began to sink, crew members on-board jumped into the Arabian Sea with their life jackets on. Many of them did not know how to swim and drifted away in the water.

A survivor’s tale

For Anil Waychal, 16 May was like any other Sunday. He and his colleagues had finished dinner and retired to their cabins on the barge Papaa-305. The rough weather didn’t allow them to sleep, but it did not occur to them the barge’s moorings could give way.

Waychal, 40, is a mechanical engineer and manager (quality) with Afcons Infrastructure.

“At 8am in the morning, when we reached the radio room, we learned that the anchors had given way. Within an hour, the barge drifted and hit the oil platform nearby," said Waychal.

Since all the marine operations are the captain’s purview, the crew handled only project-related work, he said. “As we had received the weather report on our emails, we tried speaking to the captain about the impending danger due to the cyclone. But he was confident that the specifications of our barge, as compared to the predicted wind speed, won’t create any problems. We had eight anchors. I and my colleagues decided to rely on the captain’s experience rather than our fears," said Waychal. But events took a swift turn by 9am, when the barge began to drift perilously.

At 9.30am, the crew heard on the radio that the Navy was dispatching ships for their rescue. Because of the extreme weather, an ONGC offshore vessel in the vicinity failed to move alongside the Papaa-305 to mount a rescue.

“Each personnel on our barge had three life jackets. There were 12 life rafts too. But around 2pm, when we tried to launch the life rafts, the wind speed and intensity of the waves would buffet the raft to the barge and puncture it," Waychal said.

“So, we could not use that safety option. By 2pm, the barge was around 60% submerged and we were all in our life jackets standing on the rest of the barge holding each other’s hand… each praying to their God."

It was around 3pm when they spotted the INS Kochi and were relieved that help was at hand.

“But the Navy instructed us to be on standby as it would have been dangerous for them to come close to us in that weather. We stayed put. But by 5.30pm, the barge almost gave way. We informed the Navy that we can no longer rely on the barge as it is sinking and that we are jumping into the water, requesting them to save us from the sea. While some jumped into the water, some fell as the barge submerged," Waychal recalled.

“In the sea, we all tried to hold hands, forming large groups, so that we could stay afloat together. Holding hands provided us some strength. But the wind and waves were so strong that we would get buffeted by them and lose our colleagues. The saltwater was burning our eyes, nose, and throat. Some of my colleagues were throwing up in the water. The high waves drifted me away from my group six times. But I could swim back to join hands with them," he said.

“I was in the water for nine-and-a-half hours. It was pitch dark all around and scary, but I was positive that I would get out of there. I was rescued at 2am by the Navy on 18 May. In my 15 years of working offshore, I have never seen such huge waves or been in such a life-threatening situation. I have now learned to respect nature and not to ignore its warnings. When I venture into the sea for the next assignment, it would be with a lot of respect for mother nature."

The blame game

According to ONGC officials, who didn’t want to be named, warnings from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the Coast Guard had been relayed to all the vessels and advisories were issued to them to move to safe locations.

In a statement, Afcons, the infrastructure company carrying out construction work for ONGC in the western offshore region, said the Papaa-305 was a chartered vessel and Durmast Enterprises, the owner of the barge, was responsible for its safety and security.

An ONGC official said it was possible that the barge’s captain went by the predicted wind speed of 40 knots (about 70 km/h) and thought it was a tropical storm. “But unfortunately, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly on the evening of 16 May and may not have left any time for the captain to take further safety measures," the official said.

For now, the slew of companies, under whose aegis the offshore work was being undertaken, have tried to put the onus on the captain of the Pappa-305, Rakesh Ballav, whose body is still missing.

Afcons claimed that while the other barges in the vicinity moved to Mumbai Port or Mumbai Outer Anchorage, the barge’s captain chose to move 200 metres away from the oil platform that it was working on and remain there, deciding it was a safe location; given that the maximum predicted wind speed was only 40 knots, he bet that his location, which was 120 nautical miles away from the eye of the storm, wouldn’t be vulnerable.

This raises multiple questions about the standard operating procedures that are in place in the event of stormy or cyclonic weather. ONGC officials said an internal inquiry was underway and stricter norms will be put in place for contractors and sub-contractors. Afcons declined to comment.

Commodore Jha of the Indian Navy said: “We must learn the correct lesson from such disasters. Unless we are sincere about learning our lessons, we will continue to have similar accidents," he said.

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