Tragedy at sea: 26 dead, 49 missing from barge; 186 rescued

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(Eds: Adds details) Mumbai, May 19 (PTI) As many as 26 personnel on board accommodation barge P305 that went adrift in Cyclone Tauktae fury before sinking in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai coast are dead and 49 are still missing, as the Navy continued search and rescue operations through the night, an official said.

The Navy said its personnel, battling extreme weather, have so far rescued 186 of the 261 people who were onboard barge P305 and also two from tugboat Varaprada.

So far 26 bodies have been recovered and 49 people who were on the barge P305 which sank on Monday are missing.

The Navy had so far maintained that there were 273 persons on board the barge but an official on Wednesday evening said that the company which operated it has informed that there were 261 personnel on board the ill-fated barge.

'The Navy's Search and Rescue (SAR) operations off Mumbai and Gujarat entered its third day today. Naval ships and aircraft are presently undertaking SAR of the missing crew members of Accommodation Barge P-305, which sank on Monday 35 miles off Mumbai,' the spokesperson said.

Warships INS Kochi, INS Kolkata, INS Beas, INS Betwa, INS Teg, P8I maritime surveillance aircraft, Chetak, ALH & Seaking helicopters are involved in the SAR operations.

'INS Kochi which entered Mumbai harbour on Wednesday to disembark 125 survivors and mortal remains of four crew members, was immediately sailed out in the evening again to continue the search effort.

'INS Kolkata is scheduled to enter Mumbai harbour during the night to disembark the remaining survivors rescued from barge P-305 and Tug 'Varapradha' as well as the mortal remains of 18 crew members recovered during the operation.,' he said.

On completion of its operations off Gujarat coast, INS Talwar has also been diverted to conjoin the other three naval ships searching for the missing crew of barge P-305, off Mumbai.

INS Talwar was the 'OnScene Coordinator' off Gujarat coast and assisted Support Station 3 (SS-3) and Drill Ship Sagar Bhushan, which are now being safely towed back to Mumbai by ONGC support vessels, he said.

Food and water to the 300 odd crew members of these vessels was also provided by naval helicopters from Mumbai, earlier in the day,' he said.

'As of now, 186 crew members of Accommodation barge P-305, and two from Tug 'Varapradha' have been rescued by Navy ships and aircraft. A total of 26 mortal remains of the crew of Barge P305 have been recovered so far,' he said.

'Search and rescue operations are still. However, the chances of finding more survivors are getting bleaker by the hour,' an official said.

All personnel on board two other barges and an oil rig rendered adrift hours before the 'very severe cyclonic storm' made landfall on the Gujarat coast are also safe, a Navy spokesperson said.

After reaching Mumbai, the rescuees recounted how they battled tidal waves as high as 10 metres and strong winds while trying to stay afloat in the cyclone-hit rough Arabian Sea for two days.

Workmen rescued from barge P305 narrated their horrifying experience in their quest for survival. Some said they had almost lost the hope of making it alive back home.

'It was a horrific situation on the barge. I had not thought I would survive. But, I swam in the waters for seven to eight hours with the determination to stay alive and was rescued by the Navy,' workman Manoj Gite told reporters here.

Gite (19), a resident of Kolhapur, said as the barge started sinking, all workmen got worried and he along with others wore a life jacket and jumped into the waters.

Asked if he would return to the rig again, Gite said he is not keen to go back and is contented to be alive after the nightmarish experience.

Another workman, who was injured in the incident, thanked the Indian Navy for saving his life.

'It is because of the Navy that we all are alive and safe today, otherwise we don't what would have happened to us,' the workman said while fighting back his tears.

All the 137 personnel on barge GAL Constructor were rescued on Tuesday by the Navy and Coast Guard. The 196 personnel on barge SS-3 and 101 personnel on board oil rig Sagar Bhushan are safe, the official said.

Three barges and an oil rig with 695 personnel on board went adrift on Monday. These included barge P305 with 261 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, the official said.

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

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. PTI DC AA GK VT VT VT

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