Barge P305 SAR op on Mumbai High was toughest in recent times, say Navy teams
On May 17, the Indian Navy received a distress call from ONGC’s (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited) barge P305, which informed that its moorings had snapped under the intense weather conditions created by Cyclone Tauktae, and that it was adrift in the Arabian Sea with 261 crew members on board. The navy was quick to respond to the distress call and launched INS Kochi, a Kolkata-class guided missile destroyer, to conduct search and rescue (SAR) operations at Bombay High.
But it was not long before the Navy received another distress call from another barge, Gal Constructor, which too saw its moorings break, leaving it adrift in the sea. The Navy moved INS Kolkata to respond to the situation.
By the time INS Kochi reached the vicinity of P305, it was clear that the barge was taken by the water. The barge, which was being tossed and turned by the strong currents in the Arabian Sea, had hit a close-by rig which that punctured its hull. With the wind speed exceeding 110 kilometres per hour and the drift of the ocean moving towards the north, the barge was being carried further away from the oil fields, with INS Kochi monitoring the situation closely. By sunset, the barge was beginning to sink, and as the night had set in, the barge sank at 7pm. But INS Kochi had moved in close enough to carry out the SAR operation.
“The warship’s speed is usually from 25-30 nautical miles per hour, but due to the stormy conditions, she was sailing at around 5-10 nautical miles per hour and for some distance, the speed went up to 15-18 nautical miles. We took more than five hours to reach near the site. We saw many survivors floating in the water in life jackets, but the wind was around 150km per hour and the height of the waves was around 10m. In this situation, controlling the ship at one place, sending divers, using scramble nets to pull out people from waves in zero visibility were very difficult or impossible,” said lieutenant commander Siddharth Chauhan, who was a part of the SAR team on INS Kochi.
“So, the situation was assessed looking at the water current and wind direction, and teams were prepared accordingly with senior and junior officers and divers. The operation started at 8pm on May 17. We were using high-intensity searchlight, flares and LRAD speaker for announcement – which has a range of 1km – to find the survivors as they were drifting around 6 nautical miles per hour due to high waves and wind towards north, from the site where they jumped from the barge,” added lieutenant commander Chauhan.
Accordingly, the ship captain, with the proper coordination with bridge crew members and saving teams on the deck, moved towards survivors and started rescuing them after maintaining the ship at a place. Within two-three hours, 36 people who were drifting around 10-12 nautical miles were first rescued. The scramble net was thrown into the sea and survivors were asked to hold the net. There was a group of 10 to 12 crew members standing on deck holding net ropes. Once one group of five to 10 people held the net, they pulled it up to the deck.
Another group of 10-12 survivors were found about 30 nautical miles away from the barge at 2am on May 18.
“After rescuing them, we increased our operation area and observed the wave and a third group of 40-43 people were found around 40 nautical miles away. They were picked up on the net in small groups and few were rescued by divers. We managed to rescue a total 124 people on INS Kochi till noon,” said lieutenant commander Akhilesh Sharma who was also on INS Kochi.
The sea status was observed and checks and balances were made at every location where ships were operating and divers were rescuing people. “During SAR, first we have to ensure that there is no damage from our side. A team noted down the details of the survivors so that messages could be delivered to the people concerned. After rescuing them, we got a satisfaction that kept motivating us during the SAR operation, and none of us realised about the sea sickness developed due to the continuous work,” said lieutenant commander Sharma.
The rescued people were in trauma, some of them suffered from moderate hypothermia and few had minor injuries.
“Few also started to cry after reaching on the deck but were counselled by the other teams who were working with us with medical equipment, stretcher, clothes and food,” added lieutenant commander Chauhan.
Master chief petty officer (MCPO) Mahavir Prasad, who was a seamanship instructor on INS Kolkata, said, “The waves were landing on the deck and due to high wind we could not dare to stand on it. There was zero visibility. First, our ship went to save the members of barge Gal Constructor which was carrying 137 people on board and was around about 48 nautical miles north of Colaba point. But there were an emergency towing vessel Water Lily, two support vessels and CGS Samrat in the vicinity for assistance and evacuation of the crew. So our ship was diverted for SAR P305. While we were on the way, we saw two people on a life raft. We picked them up a little before sunset and they informed us that they were on a tug boat named Varaprada. We reached late at night to the site where P305 had sunk but could not start the rescue operation due to darkness and the rough sea. The next day on May 18, we found five survivors till noon.”
The survivors said that they did not have the strength even to hold a net as they were in the water for more than 12 hours. Six divers were inside the water who recovered nine dead bodies.
“Sometimes, the bodies drift away with waves and we again put efforts to catch them and tie them with a rope so that another team could pull them up on deck,” said Anil Singh, a marine commando who was on INS Kolkata.
There were around 60 divers working on both the ships INS Kolkata and INS Kochi.
“This is the first time that we had rescued people and recovered bodies in such extreme weather conditions. It was horrific. People were lying on the sea in life jackets. We swam towards life jackets hoping that they might be alive but weren’t raising hands as they would have been tired. But after reaching there, we found them dead,” said another diver, Amit.
Seaking 42 Bravo helicopter left from INS Shikra for the SAR operation early on May 18. Soon after, another helicopter – Seaking 42 Charlie – also flew to rescue the 137 members on board Gal Constructor.
“Two pilots and two divers were in the team when we flew for Gal Constructor. The wind was more than 100km per hour. I held my helicopter at around 50 feet in air over the Gal Constructor site. It was a very dangerous and tough situation amid the high wind speed of around 150km per hour. Several wires of the crane on the barge were broken and hanging. The divers landed on the barge holding a rescue strap which used to tie crew members. Later, they were pulled up to the helicopter,” said lieutenant commander Raghvendra Kumar Dixit, who was on Seaking 42 Charlie.
“We have never seen such a situation in the past. We rescued 25 people in one round and brought them to INS Shikra. Another helicopter rescued 14 more people while the rest were lifted by Coast Guard’s helicopters, lieutenant commander Dixit added.