Eighty-six offshore workers lost their lives after four vessels that state-run oil and gas major Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) put into service, went adrift in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai during Cyclone Tauktae on May 17.
“Due to the severe cyclonic storm, unfortunate incidences have occurred involving three construction barges of M/s Afcons working on a project of ONGC in Western Offshore fields in the Arabian Sea and one drilling rig of ONGC deployed for exploration purpose,” ONGC said in a statement on 18 May.
The affected barges were deployed at the Heera platform, the largest of the ONGC rigs on the Bombay High, which is the largest oil and gas asset of the PSU (public sector undertaking) in the country.
Three vessels – cargo barge GAL Constructor, accommodation barge SS-3 and the Sagar Bhushan oil rig – were rescued by the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, and towed to safety. However, Barge P-305 sunk with 261 workers onboard.
Caught in high speed winds and swelling sea, all the anchors of P-305 broke away, leading it to drift uncontrollably. It hit an unmanned platform of ONGC resulting in water ingress and eventually capsized at 5pm on 17 May.
A total of 274 crew on barge P-305 and a tugboat that was towing barge Gal Constructor were reported missing on May 17. The tugboat, which was deployed by Afcons, had 13 onboard.
The Indian Navy led a massive rescue effort that included several of its ships, P-81 reconnaissance aircraft and Sea King helicopters.
Vice Admiral Murlidhar Sadashiv Pawar said that the search and rescue mission was “one of the most challenging operations undertaken by the Indian Navy in four decades”.
“There were waves of 20 to 25 feet (six to 7.6m), the winds were high and the visibility was low,” said another Indian Navy spokesperson.
After nearly a week-long search and rescue operation by the Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, all missing personnel were accounted for.
As many as 188 were rescued. Of these, two were seamen aboard the tugboat. The mortal remains of 86 personnel were recovered at sea.
All the 440 persons on barges Gal Constructor and Support Station 3 (SS-3) and drillship Sagar Bhushan were brought ashore to safety.
P-305 had broken free of its anchor shortly after midnight on May 16, the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas said.
Both ONGC, and its contractor firm Afcons Infrastructure, which was undertaking building work for the state-run company and had chartered P-305, placed the blame on the master or the captain of the ill-fated barge.
An ONGC spokesperson said that ONGC had 99 vessels in the sea, of which 94 had come back paying heed to weather warnings, but not P-305.
In a statement, Afcons said that the Master of P-305, Balwinder Singh, decided to move the barge only 200 metres away from the platform where it was operating even as other vessels moved closer to safe harbours based on its advice. The predicted maximum wind speed of 40 knots (about 75 km/hr) and the barge’s location being about 120 nautical miles (222 km) from the anticipated eye of the storm led the Master to believe they were safe, the company said. Singh reportedly understood the cyclone to be a “tropical storm”.
Afcons also said that Durmast is the owner and the responsibility for marine operations rests with the vessel owner and his marine crew stationed on the vessel.
However, questions are being asked over why ONGC and Afcons allowed the captain to have his way when both the India Meteorological Department and the Coast Guard had issued several warnings, beginning on 11 May.
On 19 May, the Union government ordered an inquiry into the incident at the ONGC’s Western Offshore site.
A committee has been formed with Amitabh Kumar, director general of shipping, SCL Das, directorate general of hydrocarbons and Nazil Jafri Shayin, joint secretary in the Ministry of Defence investigating the incident.
The committee will look into the sequence of events that led to the stranding and drifting of these vessels, and whether the warnings and the standard operating procedures issued for securing the vessels were adequately considered and acted upon. It will also recommend measures for preventing such incidents in future.
Although both Afcons and ONGC announced separate compensation plans for the kin of the deceased, the Forward Seamen’s Union of India (FSUI) has sought “suitable” compensation for the families of the victims, besides demanding a high-level and speedy judicial inquiry into the incident.
Union General Secretary Naresh Birwadkar, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that the compensation should be paid as per the minimum wages norms of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as considering the special circumstances.
He added that such a probe could bring out any possible lapses, such as whether all the vessels were following mandatory international maritime rules and regulations.
While Afcons would provide a compensation in the range of Rs 35 lakh to Rs 75 lakh, ONGC announced Rs 2 lakh compensation for the families of the deceased and Rs 1 lakh for the survivors.
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