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How rescue forces were stunned by the fury of Cyclone Ockhi

A chronicle of Indian Armed Forces’ dramatic rescues over the Arabian Sea during Cyclone Ockhi.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2017 08:55 IST
A rescue operation in progress.
A rescue operation in progress.(Handout by the defence ministry)

At around 4 pm on 30 November, at Vizhinjam Coast Guard base in Kerala, orders went out to all routine patrol boats of the Indian Coast Guard to return to shore, as a storm was coming. The Coast Guard wanted to protect its men and machinery.

Then, an SOS arrived from the district administration of Thiruvananthapuram — many fishermen were stuck at sea and unable to return due to strong winds raging at over 130 kilometres an hour and a rough sea. The Coast Guard sent out two interceptor boats, two offshore vessels and a Dornier aircraft to rescue the stranded fishermen.

A capsized boat with people in mid sea. (Handout by Defence ministry)

But what began with the Coast Guard turned into a rescue operation of massive scale also involving the Indian Coast Guard and Navy.

“They realised that the storm was too powerful for these few ships and one aircraft to handle,” said a senior Coast Guard officer at the Vizhinjam base on condition of anonymity. “The Coast Guard is generally the first responder in case of any crises at sea, for search and rescue operations. But we realised very quickly that we were not equipped to handle this by ourselves. So, we sent out a call to the Coast Guard Headquarters in Kochi and also informed the Indian Navy, asking for help. We informed the state government too who, in turn, approached the Navy and Air Force for help,” he said.

A Coast Guard ship towing a fishing boat to shore. (Handout by Defence ministry)

“Once we got the call from the state government, we activated all our ships in the Western Command and pressed them into search and rescue operations,” said Commander Sreedhar E Warrier of the Indian Navy who is in the Kochi Naval Base. “On the first day, 6 ships, 2 aircraft and 2 choppers of the Navy headed out.” Apart from these, 9 ships, 2 Dornier aircraft and 1 helicopter belonging to the Coast Guard were also deployed. One more ship went towards the Lakshadweep Islands.

By the end of the same day, the Indian Air Force had jumped in as well with one aircraft and two choppers. The nodal point of contact for all of these agencies was the Kochi Naval Base.

As Twilight Fell…

Cyclone Ockhi picked up in fury and an unknown number of fishermen who were closer to shore were quickly picked up and rescued by all three agencies. But night began to fall and finding survivors became tougher.

“The Dornier’s flying range is very less and it has no special features for night searches, so we pressed the Boeing P8i aircraft of the Navy into action,” said Warrier.

This craft is India’s latest pride. Manufactured by American firm Boeing, the first P8i – Poseidon 8 India – arrived at the INS Rajali Naval Base in Arakkonam, Tamil Nadu in 2013. Following flight trials, in 2015, then Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar dedicated these aircraft to the nation.

The P8i has state of the art sensors and radar that can detect very small objects in the sea as well as submarines over a wide area of the sea. Infrared cameras, magnetic anomaly detection and other surveillance cameras ensure that even at night, Navy officers have eyes.

The first P8i took off from INS Rajali on the night of 30 November. With this, 250 nautical miles off the Kerala coast was scanned and stranded boats and fishermen were identified. GPS co-ordinates of these were sent to ships out on sea.

Image from P8i of capsized boats (Handout by Defence ministry)

“We formed a joint action team of the Navy, Coast Guard and the Air Force and started rescue operations in full swing,” Rear Admiral Alok Bhatnagar, Flag Officer of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Naval Area told HT. “Though it was difficult at night to conduct rescues, our Advanced Lightweight Helicopters (ALH) were deployed to winch up those fishermen who had fallen into the sea and needed immediate rescue. These were fishermen who were hanging on to capsized boats. There were our first targets for rescue,” he said. It was easier said than done. The strong winds made it almost impossible for the aircraft to get close to where the fishermen were floating.

“Coast Guard ships are the ones which are designed for search and rescue, more than the Navy. So, we made use of our aircraft more to gather details and location of the stranded fishermen and passed it on to the Coast Guard ships,” he added.

For search and rescue operations, ships and aircraft are given specific co-ordinates – in squares – for operations.

Search and rescue by Indian forces done in squares. (Handout by Defence ministry)

Smaller aircraft such as the Dornier and ALH are generally given smaller squares for their ops. The P8i is usually deployed over the high seas to sweep 250 nautical miles in its search. Once the P8i finds survivors, information and GPS co-ordinates are passed on to the nearest ship, which then sends its onboard helicopter for rescue. Offshore Dorniers also provide information to these ships for rescue operations. These are smaller aircraft which cannot access the high seas and scan the waters closer to land.

INS Jamuna, INS Sagardhwani and INS Nireekshak were some of the Navy-owned ships sent to conduct rescues along the Kerala coast. INS Shardul and INS Sharda headed to Lakshadweep. Even destroyers – vessels meant for attack – like the INS Kolkata, INS Chennai and INS Trikand were deployed for search and rescue operations!

Search and rescue by Indian forces done in squares. (Handout by Defence ministry)

Coast Guard ships are designed to be able to get close enough to stranded fishing boats to throw a line and tow them back to shore. But larger ships, like the ones in the Navy, cannot get close to small fishing boats as they would end up damaging the boats. For larger ships to conduct rescues, the Navy had to shoot a rope into the boat and drag it in its wake at a distance.

A Coast Guard ship towing a fishing boat. (Handout by Defence ministry)

In fact, the INS Shardul and Sharda are such ships ill equipped for search and rescue operations. A boat from Tuticorin district in Tamil Nadu, with 9 fishermen on board was rescued in such a fashion by INS Sharda about 50 nautical miles off Kavaratti island in the Lakshadweep Islands. Here is the video of that rescue recorded via infrared camera of a P8i aircraft.

Local fishermen in Kerala attempted to brave the fury of the storm on their own but found that they could not even enter the sea in their little boats.

The Coast Guard’s Ops

On the night of 1 December, the Sea King helicopter of the Indian Coast Guard switched on its lights and flew over the rough seas in high winds to search for survivors in its last flight of the night. It was about to turn back, when a small green object was sighted in the sea, 30 nautical miles from the Trivandrum coast. It was a lone survivor, hanging on for life to his boat. “It was a truly satisfying experience to have picked up this fisherman,” said the pilot of the Sea King when he came back to Vizhinjam base. “The fisherman, who was from Kerala, was very weak and in bad condition when he came in,” said the senior Coast Guard officer at Vizhinjam.

Air force personnel bring in survivors for treatment. (Handout by Defence ministry)

That same night, an ALH diver VK Verma, who jumped into the seas to rescue fishermen to safety, injured his hand on the winch wire. “However, he heroically continued to assist the fishermen to be rescued before himself being winched up. He was thereafter admitted to a Thiruvanthapuram hospital,” said the senior official of the Coast Guard.

As survivors began streaming in, many were in shock and in poor health. “We provided first aid in the Naval clinic at the Trivandrum Naval Base to the survivors and also conducted medical examinations. Those who were very weak were sent to the Trivandrum Medical College and Hospital,” said Commander Sreedhar Warrier of the Indian Navy in Kochi.

Survivors being treated at Trivandrum Medical College and Hospital. (Handout by Defence ministry)

Fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Kerala had begun protests, stating that many more were missing. Data from the P8i too showed that rescue ops were far from over. By 2 December, deployment of ships and aircraft was further increased. 20 ships from the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy, 6 aircraft belonging to the Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force as well as 7 helicopters intensified search operations.

By the end of 2 December, the Coast Guard alone had rescued 87 survivors belonging to Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Indian Navy picked up 65 more and 9 others were rescued by the Air Force. Merchant vessels, belonging to private companies too chipped in, picking up any survivors they spotted – they managed to save 28.

“We found that 172 fishermen had safely reached the shores of Lakshadweep. We arranged for shelter and food for them there itself. Once the weather cleared, we brought them back,” said Commander Warrier of the Navy. Another 1000 fishermen were sent to Goa, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and given shelter there.

By 3 December, the storm had moved on towards the Gujarat coast. “As of this morning, a total of 89 boats comprising 1,154 fishermen from several states mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu have taken shelter in various ports of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa & Lakshadweep,” tweeted the Defence Ministry.

As search and rescue enters the final stage, survivors are fewer. As on 10 am on 3 December, 357 survivors have been rescued from sea. But there is no estimate yet as to how many fishermen have died in the fury of Cyclone Ockhi.

(In arrangement with GRIST MEDIA)