The Indian Navy mounted a massive air and sea rescue mission on Tuesday for oil workers and crew whose barges sank in heavy seas following a powerful cyclone that tore up the west coast killing at least 29 people.
The Indian navy said it had rescued 177 of the 270 people aboard and that efforts to find survivors were ongoing.
Three other commercial barges carrying about 700 people are stranded at sea in the wake of cyclone Tauktae near the Gujarat coast but rescue operations were said to be under control.
The cyclone came at a time when India is grappling with a staggering rise in coronavirus cases and deaths as well as a shortage of beds and oxygen in hospitals.
“This is one of the most challenging search and rescue operations I have seen in the last four decades,” Murlidhar Sadashiv Pawar, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff said.
Navy spokesman Vivek Madhwal said waves reached 20 to 25 feet, amid poor visibility.
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 29 people, authorities said.
The storm made landfall in Gujarat state on Monday and was expected to weaken overnight, the Indian Meteorological Department said.
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 Mumbai. Naval ships were sent to the area and on Tuesday, as the barge started sinking, many of the crew were rescued from the sea.
The oilfields are around 70 km southwest of Mumbai. 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.
More than 200,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Gujarat before Tauktae, packing gusts of up to 210 kph, made landfall.