66 dead, 20 missing; Navy deploys diving teams to look for bodies

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May 22 (PTI) With no trace of nine personnel from barge P305 and 11 from tugboat Varaprada six days after Cyclone Tauktae fury rendered the vessels adrift, the Navy on Saturday undertook an underwater search for the wreckage of the two vessels.

The death toll on P305 rose to 66 with the recovery of six more bodies during the day, a Navy spokesperson said.

The Navy also deployed specialised diving teams to boost the search and rescue operations (SAR) for the barge and the tugboat off the Mumbai coast.

“So far, 66 mortal remains have been recovered. The SAR ops are continuing through the night. Underwater search for wrecks of barge P305 and tug Varapada using specialised teams and equipment is in progress,” the official said in a statement.

“To augment the ongoing SAR ops for the missing crew of Barge P305 and Tug Varaprada, specialised diving teams onboard INS Makar with side-scan sonar and INS Tarasa sailed out early morning today from Mumbai,” the spokesperson tweeted.

The Navy and the Coast Guard continued the search for the nine missing personnel from the barge and 11 from Varaprada even as hopes of finding more survivors of the Cyclone Tauktae fury receded, an official said.

Of the 261 personnel who were on barge P305, 186 have been recovered so far, 66 are dead and nine are missing. Of the 13 persons on Varaprada, two have been rescued.

While all the 440 persons on barges Gal Constructor and Support Station 3 (SS-3) and drillship Sagar Bhushan were brought ashore to safety, Naval and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft scoured the waters off the Mumbai coast as the search and rescue operations entered the sixth day on Saturday.

Struggling to establish the identity of almost half the victims of the P305 barge tragedy, police have initiated the process of conducting the DNA testing of the bodies, an official said on Saturday.

A Mumbai police spokesperson said the Navy has handed over the bodies recovered so far to the city police.

Barge P-305, which housed personnel engaged in maintenance work of an offshore oil drilling platform of state-run oil and gas major ONGC, sank on Monday evening off the Mumbai coast during the cyclone. The barge had gone adrift in the cyclone fury before sinking.

Some bodies are decomposed, some others have deep injuries and therefore they are beyond recognition, the official said.

Blood samples of the deceased and their immediate relatives are being collected and sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory at Kalina in Mumbai, he said.

“After the samples are matched, the bodies will be handed over to the respective family members,” he said, adding that the DNA sampling process is expected to be completed in the next three days.

RT-PCR tests to ascertain whether the victims had COVID-19 infection were also conducted, he said.

Mumbai police have also announced they will conduct a probe as to why the ill-fated barge remained in the turbulent area despite warnings about cyclone Tauktae, an official said. The police have also registered accidental death reports in connection with the death of the personnel on the barge. PTI DC NP VT VT VT

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