Mumbai Police on Friday registered a FIR – which includes charges of “causing death by negligence” – against the captain of the barge that was carrying 261 people when it sank 35 nautical miles off the city’s coast Monday, as Cyclone Tauktae battered India’s west coast.
49 bodies have been recovered so far and 26 people are still missing five days after the incident, with the Navy leading rescue efforts that many say are now unlikely to find any more survivors.
According to news agency PTI, the captain is one of those still missing.
The case was filed after the barge’s chief engineer, Rehman Sheikh – who was rescued after spending nearly 24 hours at sea, amid the wreckage of the barge – indicated the captain ignored weather warnings and chose not to move the vessel away from the path of the storm.
“The captain said wind speed is 40 knots and it will remain between 11-12… not more than that (It was the) responsibility of the captain and master (of the barge),” Mr Sheikh, who was injured and is being treated at Mumbai’s Apollo Hospital, told his brother Alam Sheikh, another chief engineer.
Alam Sheikh also spoke to NDTV about a “hole in the barge” that raises more safety questions.
“My friend Anand told me about the hole in the barge and I immediately called the owner and informed him to get the vessel back. He did not respond. Everyone is responsible. The captain, owner and even ONGC… why did they not recall when there were warnings?” he said.
There were three barges – all chartered by Afcons Infrastructure Ltd for its contract with ONGC – in the area when storm warnings were issued May 14 and captains were advised to return to shore.
Barge Gal Constructor and Support-Station 3 had 137 and 201 people on board, respectively, and both began to move towards the harbour on receiving the warning.
The master of P-305 chose to move just 200 m away from the massive ONGC platform.
An unsigned statement from Afcons released Thursday said the barge captain remained there “deciding this as a safe location since the max predicted wind speed was only 40 knots (around 78 km per hour) and his location was 120 nautical miles (around 222 km) from the eye of the storm”.
“Unfortunately the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly from the evening of May 16, reaching levels far worse than predicted on May 17. This sudden deterioration of weather left no time at all for any further action to be taken by the master of the vessel,” the Afcons statement said.
Afcons further said “as per normal protocol, responsibility lies with the owner/maser of the vessel” and that “evacuation of the vessel is extreme step only in case the vessel is in distress”.
However, warnings issued by the weather department on May 15 indicated “sustained wind speeds of up to 91 km per hour” were expected in the area, and those in the northern parts of the Arabian Sea were advised to “return to the coast”.
Sea conditions were expected to be “very high to phenomenal” in the region on May 18 – a day after the barge sank – the warnings added.
Nightmarish stories have emerged of people from barge P-305 battling the elements to stay afloat. Manoj Gite, one of the survivors fought back tears as he thanked the Navy.
“It is because of the Navy that we all are alive and safe today, otherwise we don’t know what would have happened to us,” Mr Gite, who is just 19 years old, told PTI.
Vikas Kumar, who was also injured when the barge was sinking, said, “I jumped in the sea when the barge was sinking and injured my leg badly. I would have died if not for the Navy.”
Maharashtra cabinet minister Nawab Malik has demanded ONGC and the central government’s Oil and Petroleum ministry take responsibility. “
This is criminal negligence definitely. I will speak to the Home Minister and see that an FIR is registered,” he told NDTV.
Meanwhile, the Directorate General of Shipping has also ordered an investigation into the deaths and Mumbai Police has also filed 22 ADR (accidental death reports).
With input from PTI