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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Blame-Game Over The Sunken Barge, Chief Engineer Blames The Captain

49 Bodies Retrieved, 26 Still Missing, Chances Of Their Survival Appear Bleak

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Raju Vernekar
Raju Vernekar
I am a mumbai based journalist having worked with many daily newspapers.

INDIA. Mumbai: While 49 bodies of the personnel aboard the barge Papaa-305, that sank with intensification of Cycle Tauktae on Monday evening off Mumbai coast, have been retrieved by the Indian Navy (IN) and Indian Coast Guard(ICG), a blame game has started involving multiple agencies over the sinking of the ill-fated barge.

Rahman Shaikh, chief engineer of the P-305 barge on Thursday alleged that its captain Balwinder Singh did not take the cyclone warning seriously. He also questioned the vessel’s seaworthiness. Recovering from injuries at Apollo Hospital in Tardeo in South Mumbai, Shaikh said in a video shot by his brother Aalam, that Singh, insisted that wind speeds will not be very high and the cyclonic storm will last only for an hour.

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Captain Singh said the wind will not go over 40 knots (about 75 kmph) and the storm will get over soon. The mishap occurred because of the captain and client,” the 48-year-old Shaikh said in the video. Capt. Singh is among the 26 people still missing. Rahman is employed by “Ocean Divers”, the parent firm of Durmast Enterprises Limited, which was appointed by Afcons Infrastructure. The sunken barge had 261 personnel aboard.

Multiple agencies

Afcons Infrastructure Ltd, together with its consortium partners- Triune Energy Services, Nauta Engineering, and Halani International, has been working with ONGC for the revamp of its unmanned offshore platforms in the Arabian Sea. The chartered barge along with its marine crew was owned and operated by Durmast Enterprises Limited.

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Afcons Infrastructure Ltd, in a press statement, said the weather forecasts received on May 14, 2021, from the “service provider predicted that sustained wind speed of maximum 40 knots (classified as a Tropical Storm) is likely to occur at our specific work location late May 16/ early 17 May”. 

Elaborating about the preventive strategy, it said that on May 14 itself, all vessels were advised to secure their respective work locations and move to safe locations at the earliest. Accordingly, all vessels and barges, including Papua-305, commenced moving out of their work locations on May 14/May 15, 2021. The other barges moved to Mumbai Port / Mumbai Outer Anchorage / Anchorage close to Revandanda. However, the Master of Papaa-305 chose to move 200 miles away from the HT platform where it was working, deciding this as 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. Unfortunately, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly from the evening of May 16. The sudden deterioration of weather left no time at all for any further action to be taken by the Master of the vessel statement pointed out.

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The Afcons statement further pointed out: “As per the normal marine protocol, as well as the specific charter agreement for Papaa-305, matters concerning vessel safety lie under the responsibility of the Owner / Barge Master, who is in the best position to decide on the appropriate course of action regarding vessel safety, as he has the necessary skill sets as well as the understanding of his vessel and its equipment, under the prevailing local conditions.” On reports of why people were not moved out, it said: “Evacuation of the vessel is an extreme step only resorted to in case the vessel is in distress”.

The ONGC did not release any official statement. However, sources close to ONGC, said: “Inadequate advance notice and miscalculations of the cyclone’s ferocity and its path may have contributed to a false belief that oilfield operations in the Arabian Sea need not be paused.” Durmast Enterprises Limited could not be reached.

All these men were deployed at the Heera platform of the national energy major ONGC on the Bombay High — around 70 km southwest of Mumbai. The other five vessels/barges were SS-3 with a total of 202 people on board, Gal Constructor (137 people), Trinity Nissie (268), Ocean 303 had 170 personnel on board and Falcon Warrior had 203. The first four vessels had eight Afcons employees each, while the last one had six staffers.

Defence Minister lauds the efforts of armed forces

In meanwhile Defence Minister Rajnath Singh lauded the efforts of the Armed Forces for the ongoing search and rescue operations in areas affected due to cyclones. He commended the IN and ICG for saving the lives of people stranded at sea, while hailing the Indian Army for deploying its columns in affected areas and the Indian Air Force (IAF) for transporting personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). In a tweet, he said, “Despite the challenges posed by extreme weather conditions of very harsh sea and cyclonic winds the IN along with the IC G rose to the occasion and brought succour to the people during Cyclone Tauktae”.

Singh is in constant touch with Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of the Army Staff General M M Naravane, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, and Director General of the Indian Coast Guard K Natarajan who are briefing him regularly. The IN and the ICG have deployed their sea and air assets and rescued more than 600 people from four barges off the Mumbai coast over the past few days.

Indian Naval ships and aircraft are currently engaged in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations to locate the 38 missing crew members of Accommodation Barge P-305, which sank on May 17, 2021, 35 miles off Mumbai. INS Kochi, Kolkata, Beas, Betwa, Teg, P8I maritime surveillance aircraft, Chetak, ALH, and Seaking helicopters are involved in the SAR operations. INS Talwar has also been diverted to assist in relief and rescue operations. A total of 186 people of barge P-305 have been rescued till Thursday. Off the Gujarat coast, INS Talwar had assisted Support Station 3 and Drill Ship Sagar Bhushan, which are now being safely towed back to Mumbai by ONGC support vessels. Food and water to the 300 odd crew members of these vessels were also provided by the naval helicopters from Mumbai.

The ICG ships are also involved in SAR operations and have brought to safety crew of various adrift Indian Fishing Boats namely Badhriya, Jesus, Milad, Christ Bhavan, Pariyanayaki, and Novas Ark off the coasts Kerala, Goa, and Lakshadweep. The ICG and IN ships worked in coordination to evacuate nine crew members of MV Coromandel Supporter-IX operating for Single Point Mooring (SPM) operations off New Mangalore Port.

ICGS Samrat, two ICG helicopters from Daman, and one Indian Navy Seaking Helo from INS Shikra, Mumbai safely evacuated 137 personnel who were aboard MV Gal Constructor that was reported adrift North of Mumbai due to non-availability of power.

Earlier, the IAF had deployed its C-130J and An-32 aircraft to transport nearly 400 personnel of NDRF and 60 tonnes of equipment to Ahmedabad. The Indian Army had mobilized two columns from Jamnagar for Diu along with Engineer Task Force. Two more columns were also staged forward to Junagadh for immediate response. The Army was also involved in the clearing of roads and providing food and shelter to the needy.

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