Navy, CG rescue 317 on barges; survivors recall horror at sea

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(Eds: Adds details) Mumbai, May 18 (PTI) Battling extreme weather, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard have so far rescued 317 people on board two barges that went adrift in the Arabian Sea near Mumbai hours before Cyclone Tauktae made landfall on the Gujarat coast, but 390 more remain stranded or missing from offshore facilities, an official said on Tuesday.

The accommodation barge P305 which was servicing ONGC offshore operations has sunk, the official said, adding 180 of the 273 personnel on board were rescued till late evening.

Three barges and an oil rig with 707 personnel on board went adrift on Monday. These included barge P305 with 273 persons, cargo barge GAL Constructor with 137 personnel on board, accommodation barge SS-3 with 196 personnel on board and the Sagar Bhushan oil rig with 101 personnel on board, a Navy official said.

While all the 137 people on board the cargo barge GAL Constructor were rescued, 180 of the 273 onboard P305 have been rescued so far, the official said.

'Two Coast Guard Chetak helicopters operating from the Coast Guard Air station in Daman rescued personnel on board the GAL Constructor. One more Chetak helicopter was also pressed into service for the SAR operations,' he said.

'Navy ships INS Beas, INS Betwa and INS Teg joined INS Kochi and INS Kolkata for undertaking Search and Rescue (SAR) operations for Barge P-305, which sank 35 nautical miles from Mumbai in the Mumbai Offshore Development Area,' the Navy spokesperson said.

SAR has also been augmented with P8I and naval helicopters, who continue to undertake an aerial search in the area. Since the commencement of the SAR from Monday, 180 survivors have been recovered so far, he said.

'In another operation, a Navy Seaking helicopter was launched to rescue the crew of GAL Constructor, which ran aground north of Mumbai. It rescued 35 crew members,' he said.

SAR efforts are also in progress off the coast of Gujarat for three vessels - Support Station 3, Great Ship Aditi and Drill Ship Sagar Bhushan, which are 15-20 nautical miles south-east off Gujarat coast (Pipavav), he said.

Pipavav port, an all-weather port located 152 nautical miles from Nhava Sheva port near Mumbai,' the official said.

'Navy ship INS Talwar has arrived in the area and taken over the duties of 'On-Scene Coordinator' for coordination of the SAR effort. The Western Naval Command, in coordination with ONGC and DG shipping has diverted five tugs to render assistance.

'Great Ship Aditi and Support Station 3 have been able to drop anchor. Meanwhile, OSV's Samudra Sevak and SV Cheel are connected to manoeuvre Sagar Bhushan, and the situation at present appears to be stable.

The sea continues to be extremely rough with winds of 25-30 knots (approx 35-55 kmph), posing a challenge to the ships and aircraft involved in SAR operations,' the Navy official said.

Images circulated by the Navy showed destroyer INS Kolkata picking up two survivors overnight from the barge P305. The Navy on Tuesday said the barge has sunk.

Dramatic TV visuals also showed personnel on board what looked like a sinking rig being rescued. There was no confirmation from Navy officials on the vessel's identity.

The GAL Constructor barge was out of control for three days before the cyclonic storm led to its sinking, Avinash Aadke, a rescued worker said after being flown to Mumbai.

Aadke also said help was being sought from the Coast Guard. Proximity to land of the barge, which was anchored close to Alibaug near Mumbai and the presence of mobile connectivity resulted in help being redirected to assist other assets deep in the sea, he added.

A rescuee from P305 said nobody tried to jump into the sea till the barge was afloat. All were together and safe till then, he added.

Deputy Chief of Naval Staff Murlidhar Sadashiv Pawar said the ongoing SAR is among the most challenging search and rescue operations he has seen in the last four decades.

'As we speak, four of our Navy ships are on-site - INS Kochi, INS Kolkata, INS Talwar and INS Betwa. For the last 20 hours, they have been battling to search and rescue as many people as they can through the night and the challenging weather conditions,' he said.

'The main operation pertains to searching and rescuing people from the barge P305 which sank about 60 km from Mumbai at 7 pm on Monday. The main challenge is the weather itself.

This is an extremely severe cyclonic storm with winds of 80-90 knots, wave heights of 6 to 8 metres, continuous rains, heavy clouding, and almost zero visibility,' he said.

The three barges, which were deployed by Afcons for a contract the company had got from ONGC, had 599 workers on board when the cyclone hit, official sources said.

Besides the barges, one drilling rig of ONGC, 'Sagar Bhushan', with 101 people on board (37 ONGC employees and 64 contractual workers), too drifted away from its location.

Barge 'Support Station-3' had 201 persons and is drifting North-West but is clear of all operational installations of Mumbai High - India's biggest oilfield.

Operations to bring these persons to safety are on.

Rescue vessels including 'ICGS Shoor' of Coast Guard have reached ONGC's drillship 'Sagar Bhushan', which lost its anchors and started drifting north, sources said.

Navy ships were deployed on Monday after receipt of a request for assistance for barge 'P305' adrift off Heera oil fields in Bombay high area with 273 personnel on board. The oil fields are around 70 km southwest of Mumbai.

On Tuesday, a Navy helicopter brought some of the rescuees to INS Shikra (formerly known as INS Kunjali) naval air station at Colaba in south Mumbai.

State-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) had on Monday said barge P305 with 261 personnel deployed for offshore drilling got de-anchored and began drifting because of the cyclonic storm Tauktae.

A barge is a long flat-bottomed boat either under its power or towed by another. An accommodation barge is of shallow draft (vessel whose keel is not far below the waterline) and is used to accommodate personnel on projects where shore accommodation is not available.

Offshore accommodation barges are fully autonomous and used mainly in the oil and gas industries.

ONGC had said the barges P305 and GAL Contractor were hired by them and personnel are of the contractor Afcons, owned by the Shapporji Pallonji Group of Cyrus Mistry.

The barges were anchored to safety ahead of the cyclone but got drifted and de-anchored due to the gusty winds that have made the Arabian Sea violent.

'We have two barges deployed at the ONGC rigs. Barge No. P305 has personnel onboard and 137 people on the other.

Unfortunately, both were de-anchored by the powerful cyclonic winds. However, with the help of the Navy, both the barges have been steadied and all the 410 personnel are reported safe as of 1530 hours,' an Afcons spokesman had said on Monday.

The Navy on Tuesday morning deployed the P-8I long- range, multimission maritime patrol aircraft to join the search and rescue operations, the Navy official said. PTI DC AA ANZ VT VT VT