Only a movie like the ‘Titanic’ or ‘The Perfect Storm’ could perhaps come close to conveying the horror of those on a sinking ship. But this cataclysm unfolded in real life on Monday afternoon, as Cyclone Tauktae passed by Bombay High, ripping apart the mooring of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) accommodation barge P-305 and Barge GAL Constructor as it did so.
While Barge GAL Constructor went adrift and was later grounded, with all the 137 persons on board being rescued by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, things went from bad to worse for those onboard the ONGC barge.
Soon after the P-305 was cut loose from its moorings on Monday afternoon, it began to be tossed around like a toy by the huge waves generated in the rough Arabian sea, said those who survived to tell the horrifying tale. With no engine or propeller attached to the accommodation barge, there was little the 273 personnel onboard could do to control the vessel.
Thirty-year-old Sandeep Kumar Singh, a mechanic with the ONGC who is from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, was among the 180 persons rescued by the Indian Navy. “It doesn’t matter if we had prior information about Cyclone Tauktae. When you are at sea, nothing can be done,” he said, saying it was a high-impact incident. “Once the anchor broke, we felt as though the vessel was moving upwards in the air. And then our troubles were compounded when there was water ingress,” Singh said, reliving the horror that unfolded on Monday evening. “Such was the pitch and roll that the Navy ships were unable to come close to us during the early hours of the rescue operation,” he said.
The pitching and rolling a vessel undergoes in deep seas even on a normal day is something that even accomplished sailors can’t handle, at times. That is when the sea state – the general condition of the free surface on a large body of water with respect to wind waves and swell – is at 3. On Monday evening, the sea state near Bombay High was between 7 and 8, said Navy officials.
With the water ingress, P-305 started sinking. It was a life-and-death situation for all those onboard P-305. Satish Narwal, who works as a gas cutter and is from Sonipat, Haryana, was horrified when he was asked to wear a life jacket and jump into the water around 2.30–3am on Tuesday morning. “It was dark. Nothing was visible and I had to jump into the sea. Death was the thought that came to my mind, and I thought I would meet my fate. I had no other option but to take a chance. And I survived,” said Narwal. Narwal was in the water for nearly 12 to 13 hours. “God only knows how I survived,” said Narwal.
Ravinder Singh, 30, a cook from Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand, too, was in the same boat as Narwal, so to speak. “The chances of survival at sea are low. I just prayed during the entire time I was in water,” said Singh, who was rescued by the Indian Navy. “Once I jumped into the sea with a life jacket, I had no idea where to go and what to do. I was directionless, like an aimless wanderer, with only hope to cling on. And then, god sent the Navy to take me out of the well of death,” said Singh. Pramod Barai, another person who was rescued, was in no state to talk.
Things were far better for those onboard GAL Constructor. 21-year-old Ashish Mishra, an instrumental fitter by profession at Ideal Offshore, said, “We were asked to sit in our rooms. In the morning we were called in the gully and given life jackets. Navy help reached us in the morning. Last night, an emergency towing vessel, the Water Lily, came by but failed to come to our rescue because of the impact of Cyclone Tauktae. The Navy choppers started evacuating the stranded people at around 7-8am, today.”
Three others from Uttar Pradesh - Bhola Nath, a fitter and a native of Gorakhpur, Brijesh Kumar, a mason and Rajesh Kumar, a painter from Praygraj, were among those rescued.
As for the 137 stranded crew members onboard the barge GAL Constructor, ater losing power due to Cyclone Tauktae and then losing anchor, they found themselves drifting north for almost two days, until their rescue on Tuesday near Vadrai in Satpati, Palghar.
Thirty-six-year-old labourer Brijesh Kumar was on his first sea mission. He found himself praying continuosly since Sunday when their ship lost its anchor. “I do civil work on the barge and we were returning after finishing our work on an oil rig. We were aware that a storm was coming but we never expected it to be so massive. On Sunday morning, we realised that we had lost both anchor and power and were drifting north. Without any help, we would never have made it. We put on our life jackets and hoped that help would come soon,” he said.
“A Naval chopper had been pressed into rescue operations, to airlift the crew members,” said Commander Mehul Karnik, Naval chief public relations officer. The Coast Guard ship Samrat, along with two Chetak choppers from the Coast Guard base Daman, were all pressed into the rescue operation. Another seaman, Sanjeev Kumar Singh, 46, who had been on the barge for a year and was also rescued by the Navy chopper said, “The situation was very scary and all of us were wearing our life jackets and praying for a miracle. We survived on just water and biscuits for two days. We have received a new life,” he said.