The Indian Navy mounted a massive air and sea rescue mission on Tuesday for 81 missing oil workers and crew whose barge sank in heavy seas following a powerful cyclone that tore up the west coast of the country.
Around 180 of those on board the barge were rescued from the water as it sank off Mumbai. Efforts had started to move crew stuck on a second barge that was driven aground by the storm, the navy said.
“There are waves of 20 to 25 feet, the winds are high and the visibility is low,” said navy spokesman Vivek Madhwal. “Ships and have aircraft have been deployed for the search and rescue mission.”
Cyclone Tauktae, the most powerful storm to batter the west coast in two decades, ripped out power pylons, trees and caused house collapses killing at least 19 people, authorities said.
The storm made landfall in Gujarat state on Monday, piling pressure on the authorities at a time when India is grappling with a staggering spike in coronavirus cases and deaths as well as a shortage of beds and oxygen in hospitals.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said 160 state roads have been destroyed, 40,000 trees uprooted and several houses damaged.
Heavy rain and high winds continued to lash the state but authorities said they were making sure that medical supplies such as life-saving oxygen were being delivered to hospitals.
“Our priority is to clear the roads, so there is no impact on oxygen movement,” said Gaurang Makwana, the top official of Bhavnagar district in Gujarat.
Navy spokesman Madhwal said five ships backed by surveillance aircraft were scouring the site of the sinking of the barge “P305” in the Bombay High oilfield, where the country’s biggest offshore oil rigs are located.
On Monday, the crew sent an SOS that the ship had lost control as the cyclone roared past the Mumbai coastline. Naval ships were deployed to the area and on Tuesday, as it started sinking, many of the crew were rescued from the sea.
The oilfields are around 70 km (45 miles) southwest of Mumbai and the barges are deployed by Afcons Infrastructure Limited, a construction and engineering company based in Mumbai and were engaged in contract work awarded by Oil and Natural Gas Corp, country’s top exploration company.
Afcons did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, while ONGC said in a statement it was extending help to the navy and coastguard in the rescue effort.
Rescue operations for another vessel, Gal Constructor, which had gone adrift with 137 people onboard were completed on Tuesday with everyone being rescued, the navy said.
More than 200,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Gujarat before Tauktae, packing gusts of up to 210 kph (130 mph), made landfall.
No damage has been reported at refineries located in Gujarat and sea ports that were expected to be in the storm’s path.
At the Jamnagar refinery, the world’s biggest oil refinery complex that is owned by Reliance Industries, no damage was reported, a company spokesman told Reuters.
Operations at the Mundra port, India’s largest private port, have resumed, a port official said.