The scene Wednesday near Chennai. Photo via Indian Express facebook

A tanker grounding in India turned fatal on Wednesday after a lifeboat capsized in heavy surf  and now many are wondering why the Coast Guard wasn’t listening?

gCaptain reported Wednesday that one person was killed and 5 went missing after the Indian-flagged MT Pratibha Cauvery broke free from an anchorage in Chennai, India and grounded along a beach just south of the city as Tropical Cyclone Nilam made landfall.  Hours after the first distress signal, 22 men boarded a lifeboat in steep breaking waves but the boat capsized leaving crewmembers struggling for their lives. This all occured just miles from east India’s regional SAR headquarters, yet not a single Coast Guard asset was dispatched until hours later.

According to crew reports, the captain realized the danger of launching boats but was forced to give the order after repeated attempts to contact the coast guard failed.

“The ship started drifting since morning,” a crewmember told reporters. “We called Coast Guard, Navy and the vessel owners seeking immediate help as the engines were not working. Finally we had no choice other than launching the life boats to reach the shore before the cyclone hit the coast.”

According to local media reports, the tanker, with a total of 37 crew members, broke free from a Chennai anchorage at approximately 10 a.m. and an initial distress signal was sent out. At approximately 2:30 p.m., with the vessel was hard aground about 100 meters from the beach, the order was given to abandon ship. Local fisherman were able to pluck 16 from the water, but at least one has been confirmed dead and as many as 5 others are still missing. Update: It has been reported that 3 bodies have now been recovered.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that Coast Guard crews arrived at the scene with the delay attributed to heavy winds and low visibility caused by the cyclone. In a statement to local media, a coastal guard official was quoted as saying: “We do not monitor ships at ports, not even on a cyclone day. We rescue only when there is a call.”

But the captain has insisted that his calls, and even flares, went unanswered, not too mention the ship itself was just sitting there on the beach:

“The ship’s keel hit the seabed at 2.30pm on Wednesday. The vessel was swaying as it was being buffeted by strong winds and was taking water from huge waves,” [the captain] said. An investigating officer said the captain was under stress when he made the decision to abandon the vessel. “The situation was very tense on the ship because neither the Navy nor the coast guard responded to distress signals from the ship even after it ran aground,” he said.

So, what caused the engine failure? 

According to the Times of India, the MT Pratibha Cauvery and its crew had spent the last three weeks in Chennai’s outer anchorage without fuel and powerless for two days prior to the incident, which brings up even more questions. Even worse, the crew had reportedly been refused pay and provisions by the owners, Mumbai-based Pratibha Shipping Company Limited. The Times of India has more:

Veeresh Mallik, a senior maritime safety expert in Delhi, said the director-general of shipping and Chennai port officials should be held accountable for allowing a 31-year-old vessel to ply in Indian waters. “The DG shipping does nothing about an alarming increase in cases of dead vessels,” he said, referring to the tanker’s losing its main propulsion plant, boilers and auxiliaries due to the absence of power. “The authorities should investigate reports that the licence and insurance of the vessel had expired,” Mallik said. Indian ports have become a safe haven for dead vessels, he said. The grounded vessel was awaiting permission from the owner to sail to a dry dock as it was not seaworthy.

Indian Coast Guard’s SAR area map.

 

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