Days after Barge 305 sank off the coast of Mumbai under the impact of Cyclone Tauktae, killing at least 66 people, the extraordinary story of one man’s survival has come to light.
Anil Waychal, a 40-year-old mechanical engineer with Afcons Infrastructure, a contractor working on Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) fields off Mumbai, was one of 261 crew rescued by the Indian Navy from the stricken facility and the roiling waters around it. Rescuers are still looking for at least 20 crew who are still missing.
Waychal and his colleagues were on the barge when the storm hit around 2pm on May 17. With their vessel sinking, he and others had no option but to jump into the sea around 5pm. Waychal somehow managed to stay afloat even as his colleagues drowned, before INS Kochi rescued him at around 2am the next day.
“Nine hours felt like a lifetime,” Waychal, a resident of Maharashtra’s Kumbhargaon village, told a TV channel on Sunday, nearly a week after his rescue.
But “I had a feeling that I would be able to survive. I tried motivating my colleagues, saying we had to survive and return to our families”, he told News18.
Waychal remembers the crew jumping into the sea in groups. “The bigger the group, the greater the chances of being rescued,” he said.
The men – all wearing life jackets – tried to stay close so there would be multiple tiny dots of light to guide rescuers towards them. “We formed groups of two-three people… holding each other’s hands. We would spot another group, but the next moment it would disappear because of the strong currents,” he said.
“Often, the waves were seven-eight metres high. As they lashed us, we got separated. Again, we formed groups,” he said. “During these nine hours, I joined some three-four groups… then there were periods when it was just me.”
As darkness descended, the survivors could see nothing but the rescue ships.
“Every time the waves struck, we would end up with water in our eyes. It was impossible to see,” Waychal said.
“I couldn’t breathe from my nose and let water enter my lungs. I breathed from my mouth… Once the navy arrived, I was confident that they would rescue me,” he said.
But climbing aboard the rescue ship in the rough weather presented another set of problems.
“The weather was so rough. Plus, you wouldn’t have energy to climb into the net lowered by rescuers after such a long time in the sea,” he said.
Waychal said some of his colleagues, who are still missing, could not climb into the net and drifted into the darkness.
At first Waychal’s own efforts ended in failure, but he managed to drag himself into the rescue net. Finally he was pulled into the vessel by the rescuers.
“I was not in a condition to climb. I somehow latched on to the net. I told the rescuers, ‘Please pull me up,’” he recalled.