As more bodies were recovered Thursday following the tragic incident at Oil & Natural Gas Corporation’s Mumbai High fields offshore India and the official investigation gets under way, the perhaps inevitable blame game has escalated.
Local contractor Afcons blamed the extreme weather and the master of chartered barge Papaa 305 for the tragic loss of 37 lives.
The P 305, which was acting as an accommodation unit and had 261 workers on board when Cyclone Tauktae hit, should have been moved out of harm’s way, The Hindu quoted Afcons as saying.
“On May 14 itself, all our vessels were advised to secure their respective work locations and move to safe location at the earliest. Accordingly, all vessels and barges, including P 305, commenced moving out of their work locations on 14 and 15 May,” said Afcons.
However, the contractor said while other vessels moved to shore, the master of the P 305 elected to move just 200 metres given his location was 120 nautical miles away from the eye of the storm.
“Unfortunately, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly from the evening of 16 May, reaching levels far worse than predicted on 17 May. The sudden deterioration of weather left no time at all for any further action to be taken by the master of the vessel,” said Afcons.
The contractor, a subsidiary of India’s Shapoorji Pallonji, reportedly also said that there had been no specific warning made for the location offshore the coast of Mumbai.
"Why did ONGC not pay heed?"
“Everyone was made aware of Cyclone Tauktae, and warnings were sent out for all to take necessary precautions. Local government agencies had made arrangements for people on coastal areas to move to safer places and fishermen were asked not to venture into the seas,” Twittered Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik.
“Then why did ONGC not pay heed to all the warnings and follow safety protocols? They should have evacuated all their workers from the barges and brought them to shore before the onset of the cyclone.
“Action must be taken against those who are in charge and did not take the decision of evacuation at the right time. They must be held responsible and punished. Central Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas [sic] must also be answerable,” said Malik.
Asked by Mirror Now in an exclusive interview as to why its three chartered barges – P 305, GAL Constructor and Support Station 3 – were not evacuated as Cyclone Tauktee barrelled towards Mumbai High, Afcons said: “Evacuation was not done as it is an extreme step only resorted to in case the vessel is in distress."
Afcons also again sought to distance itself from the fatal incident – some 38 workers are still missing from the P 305 – pointing out it had chartered the barge from Durmast Enterprises.
Meanwhile, an ONGC source claimed that not only did the cyclone change its course but the unexpected low pressure conditions resulted in the deadly incident despite it taking all safety measures.
However, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) on Thursday rubbished ONGC’s claims that the cyclone had changed its path.
A 11 May release posted on IMD’s website warned fishermen not to venture “along and off” the coast of Maharashtra, where Mumbai High is located, from 15 May – two days before the cyclone hit ONGC’s offshore asset.
"Very likely to intensify further"
The department on 15 May issued a further release, this time warning of the now-named Cyclone Tauktae, cautioning it was“very likely to intensify further” into a severe cyclonic storm and then into a very severe cyclonic storm.
“Those who are out at sea over [the] north Arabian Sea are advised to return to the coast,” the IMD advised in its ‘Yellow message’ on 15 May.
Three vessels operated by Afcons – the ill-fated P 305, accommodation barge GAL Constructor and Support Station 3 - and ONGC’s mid-water drillship Sagar Bhushan bore the brunt of Cyclone Tauktee.
However, on Thursday, the Times of India reported that Glory Shipping Management’s tugboat Varapradha, which had been towing the GAL Constructor, had also sunk on 17 May, although this could not be independently confirmed.
The daily claimed that of the 13 Glory Shipping crew on board the Varapradha, two were rescued while the status of the remaining 11 people remains unknown.
All of the offshore workers and crew from the GAL Constructor, Support Station 3 and Sagar Bhushan are safe and accounted for thanks to a major search and rescue operation lead by the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard.
India's state-owned ONGC has set to issue another formal statement on the incident since Tuesday.