INS Kochi rejoining the search and rescue efforts in the Bombay High area for the men  missing reported after a barge sank during Cyclone Tauktae over the Arabian Sea on May 17, 2021.
INS Kochi rejoining the search and rescue efforts in the Bombay High area for the men missing reported after a barge sank during Cyclone Tauktae over the Arabian Sea on May 17, 2021.Photo: Indian Navy

Cyclone Tauktae: Arabian Sea barge tragedy toll rises to 49

Mumbai, May 20, 2021

The death toll in the barge tragedy in the Bombay High oilfields, which occurred as Cyclone Tauktae swirled over the Arabian Sea on its way to the Gujarat coast on Monday, has risen to 49 with the recovery of 23 more bodies since yesterday and brought to the shore by Indian naval ships.

In the tragedy that befell one of the adrift barges in Bombay High earlier this week, 49 persons have died so far and another 26 are reported missing, though the figures of those not traced remain unclear.

The Centre late on Wednesday ordered an all-encompassing high-level probe into the lapses that led to the tragedy.

Authoritative sources in the Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Ltd, which runs the BHF, said that there were "more than 7,600 people" on its 342-plus, big and small, 243 fixed and 99 floating, offshore installations there. Of the total human presence, around 6,900 were on different types of 94 vessels.

"All ONGC offshore installations are completely safe, normal ongoing operations continued, and all the people on these installations had gone into a 'sea survival mode' and there are no reports of any casualties," a source told IANS.

Of all its assets in the Arabian Sea, five vessels were stranded, including one of oil drill ship Sagar Bhushan with 101 people on board, but all were rescued safely.

Simultaneously, construction giant Afcons Infrastructure Ltd (AIL) revealed that it had a total of 1,290 people on 6 of its barges there, including 50 of its own (AIL) staffers.

Out of these 1,290, there were 261 on the Barge Papaa-305 which sank late on Monday and from which the Indian Navy managed to rescue 186 persons while 49 bodies were recovered, and the rest are "still missing" for whom search operations continue, as per an AIL statement.

Top maritime sources in Mumbai told IANS that besides the ONGC and AIL assets, there are scores of other individual or small barge or small vessels operating in and around the BHF offering a variety of services, but their exact numbers, their crew complement, or their status after the cyclone, etc, are not available, but there are no reports of any accidents so far.

Following a strong onslaught by the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) leaders on the Centre and the ONGC that it failed to adhere to cyclone warnings which were issued well in advance, a blame-game of sorts broke out on Thursday.

Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant, Nationalist Congress Party Minister Nawab Malik and Congress' state spokesperson Sachin Sawant demanded the resignation of Union Minister for Petroleum Dharmendra Pradhan and booking all those responsible for the massive tragedy under stringent laws including "culpable homicide not amounting to murder" for their lapses.

AIL said that the weather forecasts received on May 14 predicted that sustained windspeeds of maximum 40 knots (classified as a Tropical Storm) is likely to occur at its specific work locations late May 16-early May 17.

As a preventive measure, on May 14, the AIL advised all its vessels to secure their respective work locations and move to safer locations on priority, and accordingly, its vessels and barges including Papaa-305 started moving out of their work areas on May 14/15, and some reached Mumbai Port, its outer anchorage or near Revdanda (Raigad).

"However, the Master of Papaa-305 chose to move 200 metre away from the HT platform where it was working, and to remain at that location, deciding this as a safe location since the max predicted wind speed was only 40 knots and his location was 120 nautical miles away from the eye of the tropical storm," the statement said.

However, from May 16 evening, the weather conditions "deteriorated rapidly" reaching levels far worse than predicted by the following day, and there was no time left for the vessel master to take any further action, the company said.

On the oft-repeated questions pertaining to moving out people on the barges, the AIL said evacuation is only resorted to as an extreme measure in case the vessel is in distress.


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