The death toll on the barge that sank in the Arabian Sea rose to 49 with the recovery of more bodies even as the Navy and the Coast Guard searched for 37 other missing persons since the severe cyclonic storm Tauktae battered the region. Government sources said while 6,961 persons on 337 offshore wells, platforms and other oil and gas installations that dot the west coast stayed safe, five vessels encountered mechanical faults, putting to risk 714 personnel on board.
Three barges and an anchor handling boat deployed by private contractor Afcons for a project it was doing for Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), and a drillship of a state-owned firm lost anchors and drifted away. While 440 persons on two barges and the drillship were brought to safety, barge P-305 carrying 261 personnel sank. Out of 261, 186 were rescued and the bodies of 49 have been recovered, they said. Search for the remaining 26 is going on. Out of the 13 persons on anchor boat Varaprada, two have been rescued while the search for the remaining 11 is on.
Naval and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft scoured the waters off the west coast to look for the missing. The Indian Navy has deployed six vessels — INS Kochi, INS Kolkata, INS Talwar, Beas, Betwa and Teg, while Coast Guard has deployed ICG Smarth, Juliet, ICG 206, CG Patrol and ICG Shoor for the search operations. ONGC has also deployed 20 of its vessels to assist the rescue operations, which has also been joined by one vessel of Afcons.
Fifteen helicopters — seven of ONGC and four each of Navy and Coast Guard — have been doing sorties to evacuate persons stuck on the five vessels, they said.
Sources said based on the weather warning, ONGC — which operates the giant Mumbai High oil and gas field and other fields in the region — activated its emergency response system and issued instructions to all installations to take action. ONGC’s installations, which include giant platforms which house hundreds of staff, wells, drillships and support vessels, took appropriate actions like staying at safe mode or moving to a safe location, they said.
Afcons’ construction barge Support Station-3, while moving to a safe location, encountered mechanical problems after its towing wire line snapped and it started drifting. It had 202 persons onboard. Its Gal Constructor barge, with 137 persons on board, was at a safe location but its anchors gave away and it too started drifting. ONGC’s drillship Sagar Bhushan was required to stay at its position as per the standard operating procedure but its anchors gave away and it developed a mechanical fault in the steering system. All its 101 persons as also those aboard Afcons’ two barges were rescued to safety.
Afcons’ P-305 barge decided to stay nearby the platform where it was working. However, its anchors gave away and it started drifting and then hit an unmanned platform before capsizing.
Out of 261 crew, 186 were rescued.
A note from Afcons said all its vessels were on May 14 advised to secure their respective work locations and move to safe locations at the earliest. The master of P-305 chose to move 200 metres away from the Heera platform where it was working and remain at the location, it said, adding this was based on his assessment that it was a safe location since the maximum predicted wind speed was only 40 Knots and his location was 120 nautical miles away from the eye of the tropical storm.
But the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly from the evening of May 16, reaching worse than predicted levels a day later. This sudden deterioration of weather left no time at all for any further action to be taken by the master of the vessel, it said. Afcons had chartered the vessel from Durmast. Durmast is the owner and the responsibility for marine operations rests with it.
Cyclone Tauktae made landfall on Monday night on the Gujarat coast, which is dotted with oil and gas installations. While the offshore has fields producing oil and gas, the coast houses two big refineries and some of the busiest ports. The cyclone, whose intensity is similar to the one that hit Gujarat in 1998, weakened thereafter.