The cyclone Nilam spared Chennai and claimed few victims, but its another story for the crew of MT Pratibha Cauvery that ran aground near Elliotts beach last week. The Coast Guard helicopters had rescued 15 sailors. Sixteen sailors had swum ashore. The Coast Guard had launched a massive search operation to locate the missing crew members whose bodies were recovered from different parts of Chennai where the tides had taken them.
A full-fledged blame game is on over the MT Pratibha—that was anchored 3.56 nautical miles from Chennai Port—which capsized, struck by high-velocity winds hours before Nilam hit. The Coast Guard—which says their job is only to rescue and not warn of danger— blames the Captain, Carl Fernandes from Goa, for ignoring orders to vacate the Pratibha before the cyclone hit, and then not ensuring that the sailors wore the mandatory lifeguards; only those wearing the gear survived. He is also accused of not sending a senior officer to accompany the sailors on the lifeboat. A senior Coast Guard official also blamed the Captain for sending the distress signal only around 4 pm when the ship ran aground around 2.35 pm. “It was the around that time when Cyclone Nilam had a landfall,” said a top Coast Guard official. Meanwhile, local fishermen alleged that the Coast Guard itself reached only around 6.30 pm, by which time a sizeable number of crew members were rescued by them. A senior Indian Navy official said that the ship’s Captain did not heed instructions to not let the crew enter the waters. “Those who stayed on board didn’t face any problem,” he said.
The Coast Guard alleged that the vessel was not sea-worthy since October 2, and had been berthed on the Outer Anchorage (OA) of the Chennai Port. According to the testimony of the survivors, the Captain allegedly refused to move the ship to safe waters, deeper into the north or eastwards, before Nilam hit.
To add to the tragedy, the families of the deceased sailors were subjected to official apathy. Shocked family members of 31-year-old second engineer Anand Mohandas had to wait the whole day on Thursday at the mortuary of the Government Hospital, Royapettah, to receive Anand’s body. They blame the shipping company for his death. Anand joined the ship on a four-month contract with a monthly pay of `2.75 lakh. He was to be relieved on September 17; but he has not been paid his salary like so many others on board due to a payment issue between the shipping company and the agent. On Wednesday, the family had received a phone call from Anand when the ship ran aground saying that “around 500 people had come to rescue them and that the Captain warned them to leave the ship as it could break or catch fire any time.” Later, they tried contacting the Captain but his phone was switched off. The ship has been “arrested” by orders from the Madras High Court. The Captain, meanwhile, has not been arrested but detained at a defence facility when reports last came in.