Tauktae: Police open criminal case against barge captain who ‘refused to turn back to land’ despite warning

·3-min read
<p>A offshore barge of GAL Constructor after Cyclone Tauktae hit the west coast of India with powerful winds</p> (Indian Coast Guard/AFP via Getty)

A offshore barge of GAL Constructor after Cyclone Tauktae hit the west coast of India with powerful winds

(Indian Coast Guard/AFP via Getty)

A criminal case has been opened against the missing captain of the barge that went adrift and sank into the Arabian sea during severe Cyclone Tauktae earlier this week.

A formal complaint has been lodged against Captain Balwinder Singh for “causing death by negligence". The captain remains missing since the wreck, reported the PTI news agency.

On 17 May when Cyclone Tauktae hit, all eight anchors of Barge P305 came loose, setting it adrift. The drifting vessel collided with an unmanned oil rig, opening up a huge hole in the hull of the vessel from which water started to pour in, according to an eyewitness.

The vessel was owned by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) off the coast of Mumbai.

All the 261 people onboard on the barge jumped into the see when it began sinking and held on to life jackets and on rafts for hours in the choppy sea.

A total of 188 people have been rescued while 21 remain missing. The Indian Navy has recovered 51 dead bodies of the workmen on the barge.

The criminal case has been registered on the complaint of chief engineer Rehman Sheikh, who was rescued after spending almost 24 hours in the stormy sea.

Mr Sheikh, who is still recovering from his injuries in hospital, said the captain ignored the cyclone warnings which were issued a week earlier. He said the crew would not have lost their lives if the life rafts did not have punctures and the captain had taken cyclone warnings seriously.

People rescued by the Indian navy from a bargeAnadolu Agency via Getty Images
People rescued by the Indian navy from a bargeAnadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We received the cyclone warning a week before it hit. Many other vessels in the vicinity left. I told the captain, Balwinder Singh, that we must also leave for the harbour,” he told The Indian Express.

“But he told me that winds were not expected to be over 40 kmph and the cyclone would cross Mumbai in one or two hours. But in reality the wind speed was more than 100 kmph. Five of our anchors broke. They couldn’t withstand the cyclone.”

Mumbai police spokesperson S Chaitanya said the complaint has been registered against the captain and others while more people are expected to be booked following investigations.

“The captain of the barge acted negligently on the warnings issued related to Cyclone Tauktae and that allegedly led to the mishap which has killed 49 so far, due to which we have registered an offence,” he said earlier.

Indian Navy conduct search and rescue operationEPA
Indian Navy conduct search and rescue operationEPA

“We have so far mentioned the barge’s captain and others in the FIR, and on the basis of the findings of the investigation, we will book more officials.”

ONGC and its contractor Alfcons Infrastructure blamed the captain, saying he moved only 200 metres away from the platform while other vessels moved to harbours.

Four days after the mishap, a massive search operation with the Indian Army’s choppers and navy is still underway to locate missing people.

A tree uprooted by cyclone in Ahmedabad, GujaratEPA
A tree uprooted by cyclone in Ahmedabad, GujaratEPA

People rescued from the vessels recounted horrifying stories. One survivor, Amit Kumar Kushwaha, said he jumped off the vessel and drifted into the stormy sea, clinging on to his life jacket during the night before being rescued by the Indian Army.

A high-level inquiry has been announced by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas into the “lapses and gaps” in the system that led to the incident.

At least 91 people have died in the devastation caused by the cyclone, which was classified as "extremely severe". The cyclone made landfall in Gujarat state with wind speeds of up to 160km/h (100mph) and narrowly missed Mumbai, which saw heavy flooding and disruption.

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