49 dead and 26 still missing from barge P305: Navy continues search

The Indian Navy has deployed six vessels, while Coast Guard deployed two more and other offshore patrol vessels for the search operations.
Helicopter rescue
Helicopter rescue
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The death toll on barge P305 that sank in the Arabian Sea four days ago rose to 49 on Thursday with the recovery of more bodies even as the Navy and the Coast Guard continued the search for the 26 personnel missing from the barge and 11 from anchor boat Varaprada, as hopes of finding more survivors of the Cyclone Tauktae fury receded. Of the 261 personnel who were on barge P305 that sank on Monday, 186 have been recovered so far, an official said. Of the 13 persons on anchor boat Varaprada, two have been rescued while the search for the remaining 11 is on.

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 at risk 714 personnel on board, official sources said. 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. While 186 were rescued and the bodies of 49 have been recovered, the search for the remaining 26 is on, they said. Naval and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft scoured the waters off the west coast on Thursday to look for the missing.

The Indian Navy has deployed six vessels -- INS Kochi, INS Kolkata, INS Talwar, INS Beas, INS Betwa and INS Teg, while Coast Guard deployed ICGS Samarth, ICGS Shoor and other offshore patrol vessels for the search operations. ONGC has also deployed 20 of its vessels to assist the rescue operations, which has also been joined by a 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. 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, sources said.

ONGC 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. 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.

Rahman Shaikh, the chief engineer of the P-305 barge, has claimed that its captain did not take the cyclone warning seriously, leading to the death of the crew members. He also questioned the vessel's seaworthiness. Recovering from injuries, Shaikh said in a video shot by his brother Aalam that Balwinder Singh, the captain, insisted that wind speeds will not be very high and the cyclonic storm will last only for an hour.

"The captain said the wind will not go over 40 knots (about 75 kmph). It will start at 11 and end at 12. The entire incident happened because of the captain and client," the 48- year-old Rahman Shaikh said in the video, shared by Aalam.

Mumbai police have announced they will conduct a probe as to why the ill-fated barge remained in the turbulent area despite warnings about cyclone Tauktae, an official said. They also registered accidental death reports in connection with the death of the personnel on the barge.

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