While search and rescue operations continue for missing crew members of the ONGC barge which sank after Cyclone Tauktae left behind a trail of devastation in the company’s Mumbai offshore establishment, the Indian Navy simultaneously gears up to deal with yet another super cyclone -‘Yaas’; expected to hit the eastern coast of West Bengal and Odisha by 26 May.
“Indian Navy has been at the forefront of the HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) operations for many years. We have standard operating procedures and protocols in place to deal with such cyclones. The Indian Navy is kept on standby and ready for deployment in case a request comes from the state authorities,” said Vice Admiral Dinesh K Tripathi, Director General of Naval Operations (DGNO) of the Indian Navy.
Indian Naval ships and aircraft are presently undertaking search and rescue operations for the missing crew and residents of accommodation barge P-305, which sank 35 miles off Mumbai along with Tugboat ‘Varapradha’ on 17 May. As of 21 May, 186 of a total of 261 personnel who were on board the barge, and two from the tug ‘Varapradha’ have been rescued by naval ships and aircrafts. 60 bodies have been recovered whereas 30 personnel from barge P-305 and eleven crew members of tugboat Varapradha are still missing, Navy official informed.
Categorised as an ‘extremely severe cyclone’, Tauktae was one of the worst cyclones requiring intervention by the Indian Navy. Indian Navy ships worked through the night in the pitch dark waters to look for survivors. Navy ships INS Kochi, INS Kolkata, INS Beas, INS Betwa, INS Teg, P8I maritime surveillance aircraft, Chetak, ALH and Seaking helicopters are involved in the SAR (Search And Rescue) operations. Another Navy ship INS Talwar was the ‘On Scene Coordinator’ off Gujarat coast and assisted Support Station 3 (SS-3) and Drill Ship Sagar Bhushan with nearly 300 crew members, which were adrift, being safely towed back to Mumbai by ONGC support vessels. All personnel aboard these ships are safe, informed the official.
Battling high tidal waves and strong winds while trying to stay afloat and await rescue, is a colossal challenge by itself. Rescued personnel from the sinking barge narrated horrifying experiences in their quest for survival. One of the survivors said the incident was similar to the scenes from the movie ‘Titanic’ which depicted the sinking of the RMS Titanic ship in 1912 in the North Atlantic. Others said that they had almost lost hope of making it back home, alive.
“People might have watched in ‘Titanic’ movie the occupants jumping off the sinking ship amidst the floating dead bodies of co-passengers, but we saw all this unfold right in front of our own eyes,” Vishwajeet Bandgar (28), who worked on the barge as a welder, said after his rescue by the Navy. “It was worse than the Titanic, as dead bodies of our colleagues, who worked with us, could be seen floating in the water,” he said.
Explaining the challenges of this mission, the DGNO said extreme weather conditions posed serious challenges, while delays in locating survivors in water could have resulted in more casualties. The Indian Navy continued with its rescue tasks relentlessly. “This was the strongest tropical cyclone that has ever happened in the Arabian Sea with a sustained wind speed up to 130 to 140km/h and waves as high as 9 meters with zero visibility amidst rain fury and thunderstorms. It’s indeed difficult for us to operate at sea. But due to deft handling of operations, we managed to rescue 130 survivors within the first 12 hours of sinking the barge P-305 with the help of warships Kochi and Kolkata,” said DGNO.
Speaking exclusively with BharatShakti, Vice Adm Tripathi informed, “It has been 95 hours since the barge sunk in very rough sea and extreme weather conditions. Although, up against time, we are hopeful, we may find more survivors who could have drifted afar. Accordingly, we have expanded the search area and increased the number of ships and aircrafts like P-8I and helicopters to complement search efforts.”
Expressing satisfaction over one of the most daring naval operations, the top official observed, “The operation epitomised and highlighted courage, professionalism and never say die spirit of our personnel. The operation is also a testimony of our shipbuilding capability, how INS Koch and Kolkata carried out operations without any damage to the platforms and injuries to any of their crew members”.