Death toll up to 12 in Bombay High fire

RELIEF AFTER RESCUE: An ONGC employee being hugged by a relative after arrival in Mumbai on Thursday.

RELIEF AFTER RESCUE: An ONGC employee being hugged by a relative after arrival in Mumbai on Thursday.  

355 employees rescued, 13 missing; the worst accident in the history of ONGC

Meena Menon

MUMBAI: The Indian Air Force, the Navy, the Coast Guard and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation launched a massive search and rescue operation after the fire, which destroyed the ONGC's processing platform off Mumbai on Wednesday evening. At least 12 persons are dead and 13 still missing, while 355 survivors have been located and rescued, according to Subir Raha, chairperson and managing director.

In terms of property loss, this has been the most serious accident in ONGC history, he said. Hopes of finding more survivors went up after five persons were rescued on Thursday morning, 20 km away from the site of the accident.

Mr. Raha, who was present at Victoria Docks to receive the survivors, told a press conference that the fire broke out at 4.05 pm when the multipurpose support vessel Samudra Suraksha approached the platform for a medical evacuation.

A person on board the ship had broken his finger and needed medical attention, which was available on the offshore platform.

However, for reasons yet to be established, the ship lost control and drifted and collided with the platform. All available information indicates that this collision resulted in serious oil leakage and fire, which spread rapidly, Mr. Raha said.

"Though the conditions were difficult on the high seas, our personnel made a courageous attempt to control the fire which was going out of control and orders were issued for abandoning the platform. The ship also caught fire and people had to abandon the vessel. However, the ship has six divers who are undergoing decompression ... and it was not possible to prematurely terminate their decompression," he said. Efforts are being made to move them to another ship Samudra Prabha, which reached there early on Thursday. This ship was along side Samudra Suraksha helping in fire fighting and rescue, he added. These multipurpose support vessels are highly sophisticated computerised ships, equipped to deal with all sorts of emergencies. They have dynamic positioning systems and it is difficult to say what went wrong, he said.

There were 227 people on the Bombay High platform, while there were 84 people on board Samudra Suraksha and 73 people on Noble Charlie Yester, a privately-owned drilling rig, which also had to be abandoned. The platform was lost in less than two hours, while Samudra Suraksha though afloat is still on fire and will be out of service. There were about 384 people in all these places and 355 have been rescued.

Of the 12 persons who died, six are ONGC personnel (five officers and one worker); one person is from SCI (which contracts the ships to ONGC), and one from the rig Charlie Yester.

Two persons are yet to be identified. Heavy rains prevented the operation of the control room at Bandra. For, there was no power and even emergency power failed due to flooding, Mr. Raha said. All communication failed except the satellite link. The 12 helicopters, which are contracted to ONGC from Pawan Hans, were grounded due to rains. Four helicopters are deployed offshore for emergencies, but the one on the offshore platform was destroyed.

The Coast Guard was among the first non-ONGC agency to reach the site of the accident and join the search and rescue operation.

The Navy also responded promptly and six naval ships were deployed in the area for search and rescue.

The BHN platform was insured for a sum of $195 million while Samudra Suraksha, which appears to be a total loss despite being afloat, was insured for $60 million.

The flow of oil and gas from the wells has been affected and some of them are shut down, Mr. Raha said.

The rest of the production is continuing and a detailed damaged assessment is being done.

"The immediate impact of the loss of the platform is loss of crude oil production of 110,000 barrels per day. Engineers are working round the clock to restore production and we expect 70 per cent of the production loss to be restored within four weeks," he said.

The production has been diverted to alternative routes and ONGC has a sub sea network of 4200 km of pipelines.

Mr. Raha who landed on the first civilian flight at 4.55 am after the Mumbai airport was reopened, acknowledged the courage of the people from ONGC, the Shipping Corporation of India and the oil rig Noble Charlie Yester who rose to the occasion.

So far 129 people have been brought to Mumbai and many more ships have left to bring back the rest of the survivors.

An inquiry committee headed by S.K. Manglik former chairperson and managing director of ONGC, and comprising H.S. Cheema, former chairperson and managing director GAIL and Ishwari Dutt, former director of ONGC has also been instituted. It will be assisted by Shell.

Shell has specially trained people for incident investigation.

Its report should be ready in less than three months. British Gas and Cairn Energy have also offered their services in terms of helicopters and specialised assistance.

The injured people have been given first aid and no one has been hospitalised as yet.

All the affected people and their families will be provided either jobs or compensation under various schemes of the ONGC.

Mr. Raha admitted to the possibility of environmental damage, as there was leakage of oil, some of which has been burnt. The Coast Guard has sprayed dispersants to stem the spill.

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