“I was in the water for 12 hours, wondering when I would die,” said Naresh Kharatmol, 32. “The faces of my children kept flashing in front of my eyes.”
Naresh, a worker from Mumbai, was one of 188 survivors rescued off the coast of Mumbai after barge P305 sank on May 17 when Cyclone Tauktae ripped through the Arabian Sea. The barge had 261 crew members on board.
Search and rescue operations by the Indian navy and coast guard entered their fifth day today. The bodies of 49 crew members have been recovered so far, while 26 remain missing. The rescue mission – which includes INS Kochi, INS Kolkata, coast guard vessels and chartered vessels – will probably continue for two more days, though officials told Newslaundry that there are unlikely to be any more survivors.
P305, which was around 70 km from the shore when it sank, served as accommodation for workers contractually employed on oil rigs and platforms of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. Naresh, who has two children aged three and five, was rescued after 10-12 hours in the water. He recalled the horrors of jumping from the sinking barge at 4.10 pm on Monday and fighting for his life in the sea with six fellow crew members.
“The fierce winds and waves as high as 10 metres kept flinging us around,” he said. “We kept ingesting the water and puking throughout.” His seventh wedding anniversary had been on May 19, he added. “My wife had no clue whether I was alive or dead. Imagine what she must have felt.”
Naresh was finally rescued by a private barge at around 2.30 am on May 18. He was then taken to a seafarers’ hostel in Navi Mumbai for a medical screening before he was sent home. His thoughts now lie with those still missing, including Saurabh, his 22-year-old roommate on board the barge.
“We were so close,” he said. “He used to always click selfies with me. His father would call me whenever Saurabh didn’t pick up his phone. What will I tell uncle if he calls me now?”
Naresh Kharatmol on board barge P305.
Naresh holds “all the big companies” responsible for the loss of innocent lives. This includes ONGC, which had contracted Afcons Infrastructure Limited for an offshore project which, in turn, had subcontracted Mathew Associates for the workforce, including Naresh. Smaller companies were also contracted for specialised work.
Naresh added that he was angry since he believes that the disaster could have been prevented had P305 been called back to shore just two days before. P305, a stationary vessel, had not returned despite ONGC on May 11 and 13. The barge’s chief engineer claimed the vessel’s captain or master also ignored warnings of bad weather, .
“We were told to stop working on May 15 and come back to the barge,” Naresh said. “But we were not given any instructions or told that we’ll be going back to the shore. They just moved our barge 200 metres away from the oil platform.”
So, P305 remained in open water. On the morning of May 17, when Cyclone Tauktae ushered in winds of 150-200 kmph and waves 10 metres high, six of the barge’s anchors snapped. The barge then rammed into an oil platform which punctured a hole in the vessel, causing water to gush in.
Survivors and relatives of those dead or missing all asked Newslaundry the same question: Did the cyclone claim so many lives or was it negligence?
‘If they had moved the barge, nothing would have happened’
On Thursday, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas announced a high-level inquiry into “lapses and gaps” in the system. A day later, the Mumbai police against Balvinder Singh, the captain of the vessel, for negligence, based on a complaint from the chief engineer.
Both ONGC and Afcons Infrastructure also placed the blame on Balvinder, who is still missing. Late on Friday, ONGC Rs 1 lakh relief for each of the survivors and Rs 2 lakh each for families of those who died or are still missing.
Anant Pawar, 53, worked as an electrical supervisor on the project, staying on the barge since late January. He was hired by one of the smaller companies contracted by Mathew Associates and was rescued around 10 pm on May 17, after spending over five hours in the torrential sea.
“If the companies had brought us back the same day the onsite work was halted, I am 101 percent sure this mishap would not have happened,” he said. “I lost all hope of coming out of this alive.”
Anant added that he had attached his identification card to his uniform so that his family could identify his body if he died.
On Thursday, families, friends and acquaintances of workers who died in the tragedy gathered at the mortuary compound of Mumbai’s JJ Hospital. A heartbreaking task lay before them: to identify their loved ones from the 26 bodies that had been brought to the morgue. By that evening, only one of the families took home the body of a relative.
The delay was due to several factors. First, relatives told Newslaundry that after days in the water, the bodies were decayed beyond recognition. Some were identified through name tags on uniforms and identity cards. Second, RT-PCR tests were conducted on the deceased to rule out whether they had Covid.
Satyendra Singh from Deoria, Uttar Pradesh, was on the phone with a family member, explaining that he had identified the body of his older brother Upendra, 41. His loud wails echoed in the premises while his cousin Maan Singh tried to console him.
“It was all intentional,” Maan, 23, told Newslaundry. “If they had moved the barge, nothing would have happened to anyone.”
Satyendra and Maan are both also employed by Mathew Associates, working on a separate project and staying on a barge called Trinity Nissi, which was right next to P305. Trinity Nissi had returned back to shore due to the cyclone warnings. Maan said that P305 was supposed to return too but those in charge changed their plans at the last minute.
“They stayed back while we came towards the coast,” he said. “For P305, 96 percent of the work on the project was complete. With just a couple of days of work left, the company may have thought it didn’t make sense to go back and then come again.” He added that it would have cost Afcons Infrastructure, which pays the barge rent, a “few extra lakhs” worth of rent and transportation charges.
“It’s the fault of Afcons, Mathew Associates, and the barge captain,” Maan said. “This is murder. It is not a tragedy. Just for some money and some gains.”
In a corner of the morgue compound was Chandan Singh, 23, who works at a pharmaceutical company in Mumbai. His eyes were red-rimmed, staring at nothing. Chandan had reached the morgue after spending hours trying to get information about his brother, Vivek Singh, who went missing when P305 sank.
“I last spoke to him on Sunday. He told me he’s coming back on May 20 when the project ends,” Chandan said, adding that Vivek had planned to go to their village in Uttar Pradesh to see their parents.
After making several answered calls to Afcons on Wednesday evening and visiting their office in Mumbai’s Andheri, Chandan went to the navy’s office near the Mumbai dockyard. He spent the night there, waiting for information, but his brother was not on any of the rescue ships. He was then told to go to the morgue.
“I have seen so many of them,” he said, referring to the bodies. “My brother is not there.”
Like the others, Chandan told Newslaundry he holds the company accountable for not bringing P305 back to the shore.
Two representatives from Mathew Associates were present at the JJ Hospital morgue. They refused to identify themselves or speak to Newslaundry. Afcons Infrastructure had one employee present while there was no one from ONGC.
“My family has been broken,” said a representative of one of the companies, trying to calm restless relatives. “All 50 of my kids are gone. Please wait some more time.”
Newslaundry spoke to Mathew Antony, a lawyer and Congress member who was helping families with the process at the morgue. Antony told us that he holds ONGC responsible for the tragedy.
“Whether ONGC has employed X or Z, if something goes wrong, the principal employer is responsible,” he pointed out. “So, if there is a principal omission from ONGC’s side, whether or not the subcontractors complied with it, they should have taken these employees out of the high seas, rather than exposing them. Who is going to hold ONGC responsible for this?”
Newslaundry also visited Nair Hostel in Navi Mumbai, where some of the survivors were lodged, but was not allowed to meet them. Representatives of Mathew Associates and Afcons, as well as the owner of the hostel, claimed there were no survivors there, even as they told an injured survivor not to speak to us.
Meanwhile, as relatives of those on board blamed the companies for the tragedy, Abhijeet Sangle, the national working president of the All India Seafarers Union, told Newslaundry that perhaps the company or the barge captain had been “misled”, leading to the disaster.
At the ONGC office in Delhi, a source told us, on the condition of anonymity, that instructuctions had been regularly shared with the barges out at sea.
“Our advisory and instructions were very clear: ‘Please shift to safe locations’,” he said. “When you are told they are at a safe location, then you cannot question them. The advisory was shared with all vessels. If ONGC had not heeded the [cyclone] warning, how come there was no damage whatsoever to 94 of the 99 floating installations?”
The ONGC source added, “The masters or owner of the barge must have taken an informed decision that they were at a safer place. An inquiry committee has been set up. The truth will come out.”
The owner of the barge is a company called Durmast Enterprises Ltd. Afcons Infrastructure has said that the “responsibility for marine operations” .
Missing at sea
For the families who haven’t heard yet about their loved ones, it’s a long wait.
Abhinav Kumar has been trying to find Sachindra Prasad Singh, a friend’s father who was on board P305 as a barge surveyor. The family last spoke to Sachindra, 58, on May 16.
“He had spoken about the cyclone and mentioned that he told the captain to go back. But he did not agree,” said Abhinav. “He had told the captain to take them back but he didn’t listen. His profile was of a surveyor so he had reported to ONGC about the strong cyclone as well.”
Sachindra’s name does not figure on the list of people rescued so far, Abhinav said. “We are hopeful, but it has been three days.”
Family members of Anthony Edwin, a 27-year-old from Kerala who was on P305, said they last spoke to him on May 17.
“We are getting no information from the government or the company,” said his uncle Joseph Daniel. “When he called on May 17, he spoke about the strong winds.”
He added, “He is the eldest son in the family.”