MUMBAI: In the recent offshore Pawan Hans helicopter accident that killed four people, none of the nine occupants were injured during the emergency landing onto the Arabian sea. The occupants had managed to unfasten their seat belts, open the aircraft doors, make their way out and inflate their life jackets to stay afloat. All the nine people onboard were alive, unhurt and well; corroborated numerous sources Times of India spoke to in the weeks following the June 28 accident.
“The four people died not because they didn’t come out of the helicopter safely, but because the rescue didn’t arrive on time,” said sources. A delayed rescue combined with two other crucial factors probably led to the fatalities, say sources.
First, the inclement weather had waves rising to 8-10 feet, say sources. “During monsoon, rescue should be completed within 30-45 minutes,” said another source. But sources said that the four people who died were picked up over two and a half hours after the helicopter had ditched__emergency landing on water, that is.
The second crucial factor was that the helicopter turned upside down within seconds of landing. The Sikorsky S-76D has two external life rafts. “The life rafts detached on impact. The pilots tried to inflate it, but it didn’t function,” said a source. “This helicopter can carry a total of 14 persons. Each raft is designed to carry 10 % more than the maximum seating capacity, and there were only nine people on board. The four deceased would have had a better chance at survival had the rafts inflated,” he added. Any aircraft that flies over water at a distance from land carries life rafts as part of its lifesaving equipment.
The next big question is the protracted rescue time. On June 28, the day of the accident, the ONGC and Coast Guard claimed that vessels and aircraft were rushed to the spot. “The Regional Contingency Plan was immediately activated; Indian Navy and Coast Guard were informed of the incident,” ONGC had said in a press statement. Coast Guard spoke about the ships it had diverted to the site. But what was missing from their narrative was the timeline of the rescue.
In their investigation, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau does not cover aspects involved in rescue. It will focus on what went wrong with the helicopter and how can such an incident be avoided in the future.
On Monday, TOI sent questionnaires to ONGC and the Coast Guard about the rescue operations carried out that day. Both the parties chose not to respond.
“Pawan Hans should question ONGC’s standard operating procedures regarding rescue in case of such events,” said a source. ONGC holds a 49 % stake in Pawan Hans though.
Helicopter landed close to the rig:
With nine people aboard, the Pawan Hans helicopter landed onto the sea between 11.35 am and 11.40 am, less than a kilometer away from the flight’s destination, the Sagar Kiran rig, said a source. “On the rig, the passengers waiting to board the helicopter could visually see it land on water,” the source said. In the inclement weather and rough sea, the helicopter turned upside down. But its floats deployed and kept the helicopter buoyant. “The Pawan Hans pilots and the ONGC staff had undergone their Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) and could make their way out of the aircraft,” said sources.
“From the rig, all the nine people in lifejackets afloat at sea were visible. No search operation was needed at that point of time,” said sources. The two pilots managed to climb atop the floating helicopter and they pulled up three survivors onto their tiny makeshift island. Four others floated around, struggling against the swells, trying to stay close to the helicopter. With no life rafts this was the only option before survivors.
“About 20 minutes later, a lifeboat lowered from the ONGC Sagar Kiran rig reached the spot for rescue. Of the four people afloat, the boat picked up one person who happened to be closest to the rig,” said a source. The three others were afloat beyond the helicopter on the other side. The pilots and passengers shouted, gestured and blew their whistles (whistle included in the lifejacket) while pointing towards the three people struggling to stay alive in the violent sea. Even as the survivors and onlookers on the rig waited, expecting the boat to pick up the trio, they saw the boat turn and head back to the rig, said three sources. It never returned.
“It was a shocking moment. The onlookers were confused. Probably the boat crew couldn’t spot the helicopter or the three passengers afloat at sea,” said a source. Said another source: “Probably, they found the waves too huge and feared the boat would capsize.” The three people were finally picked up by Naval helicopters after they spent over two and a half hours being lashed about in the briny waters of a sea in swell. They didn’t survive, sources said.
The next to arrive on the scene, an hour and half after the helicopter had ditched, was ONGC’s offshore supply vessel Malaviya-16, 72 m long and 16 m wide. “It is a big vessel. As it drew close, its turbulent wakes sent the floating helicopter shaking violently. The five survivors atop the aircraft struggled to stay put, holding tight on to each other’s hands. But one person’s grip failed and he slipped into the sea,” a source said. Those atop the helicopter again began shouting, whistling, pointing towards the person who fell off, who by now was drifting away. He wasn’t rescued and ended being the fourth deceased. “Even with coordinated breathing, holding the breath to weather a swell, it’s not possible to survive for long in rough sea. Seawater will get into the respiratory airway,” said the source.
The four people who climbed atop the helicopter and the one rescued early on by the ONGC lifeboat were the five who survived the accident. Three of the four deceased were ONGC staff: two executive engineers, Mukesh Kumar Patel and Vijay Mandloi, and a geologist, Satyambad Patra; the fourth was a housekeeping employee, Sanju Francis, who worked for a contractor. According to media reports, Patra married a year ago and his wife is pregnant with their first child.
Struggle to survive
The four people stranded on the helicopter had to put up a life draining struggle to get onto the vessel. After the vessel, Malaviya-16 stopped alongside the helicopter, buoys with ropes attached were thrown towards the aircraft, which was on the vessel’s port side (left hand side). While two people caught on to the buoys and jumped off, the other two stayed put on the helicopter. The aircraft, which was being tossed high and low by the huge waves drifted towards the front of the ship. The vessel too heaved and fell with the swell. “The helicopter drifted towards the bow of the vessel. At one point it looked like the aircraft would come under the vessel. But then it continued to drift and went over to the starboard side of the ship,” said sources.
Meanwhile, on the port side, a rope ladder was lowered and one of the pilots caught it. “But he must have been too fatigued by then because he couldn’t climb. He locked his legs into the ladder and hung alongside the ship even as it was being tossed by the huge waves. After a while he managed to pull himself up and climbed up the ladder,” said sources. The other passenger was pulled up thereafter.
On the starboard side of the vessel, the helicopter with its two stranded survivors kept drifting. “No one from the vessel came over to the starboard side for about ten minutes. Thereafter someone threw a rope ladder down. But the rope ladder, thrown from one of the windows of the vessel, was not long enough to reach the sea. It fell short by about ten feet,” said a source. With each swell, one of the passengers would jump, try to catch the ladder, while the other looked on. “The survivors then shouted, asking the vessel’s crew to lower the rope ladder further, not realizing that the entire length of the ladder had been used up,” he added. Finally, one of them jumped and caught on to the ladder, but he too appeared to not have any strength to climb. “He stayed put on the ladder for quite some time, not moving at all, while the crew of the vessel looked on. Then he tried to slip into the buoy without removing his lifejacket. He probably didn’t want to remove his lifejacket. Eventually he managed to wriggle into the buoy, with his lifejacket on. But the lone guy on the vessel holding on to the rope attached to the buoy couldn’t pull the survivor’s weight,” said a source. “After a while, more people came over to the starboard side of the vessel and they pulled up the buoy. The other passenger too followed the routine, slipped into the buoy and was also pulled up. Over forty minutes after the vessel arrived, the four people who stayed put on the upside-down helicopter with its yellow floats deployed were finally rescued and safe.
Onboard the vessel, one of the survivors started shivering and hyperventilating. “The vessel’s crew had no idea on how to handle such cases, the kind of first aid that could be administered. He lay like that for about half an hour before other survivors came over and had the ship’s crew fetch blankets,” said the source. Later the vessel dropped the four passengers to the Sagar Kiran rig. “About two hours after the helicopter ditched five out of the nine people were rescued and were on the rig,” said sources.
The four others were picked up by the Naval helicopters, guided by Coast Guard aircraft and vessels about two and a half hours after the accident, according to sources. “The Naval operation was swift. Once the helicopters arrived, they picked up all the four in quick succession. But it was too late,” said a source. Other sources TOI spoke to were not sure about the details of the Navy’s rescue.
Soon after the accident, ONGC officials boycotted Pawan Hans. In the following days, more details about the rescue operations came in. The questions that were left unanswered are, why didn’t a helicopter with a rescue winch reach the spot sooner? Coast Guard helicopters carry out winching operations__picking up a survivor from sea with a hoist attached to the side of a helicopter, that is. “Did the weather or poor visibility force a delay in the rescue helicopter deployment? Secondly, what is the Standard Operating Procedure that ONGC has in place to handle such emergencies, especially in monsoon conditions?” These are some of the questions that employees of both companies have.
In the recent past, offshore helicopter accidents leading to fatalities involved a crash. “But close to two decades ago a Pawan Hans helicopter had carried out a controlled ditching onto the Arabian sea. The sea was calm that day and all onboard were rescued. There has been no other instance with this combination of factors; a rough sea, failed life rafts and a delayed rescue,” said a source. “What is pertinent here is to note that the Sikorsky helicopter had ditched less than a kilometer from the ONGC Sagar Kiran rig and people saw it landing onto the sea. The Sagar Kiran rig is about 110 km off the west coast of Mumbai, while the Mumbai High oil field is further into the sea at about 180 km off the coast. These were the factors that were in favor of rescue operations. How prepared are we for a ditching should such an incident occur far into the sea in poor weather?,” he said. “Only an independent investigation on the rescue operations carried out that day will reveal the wrongs. An investigation should not be used to apportion blame, but to learn lessons to avoid a repeat,” he added. According to a source, ONGC has initiated an internal inquiry, but this could not be confirmed.
Another relevant point is the air ambulance that ONGC has on hire. “For the very first time, ONGC has hired a helicopter specifically dedicated for air ambulance. The AgustaWestland 169 belonging to Global Vectra started night ambulance services a few months back,” said a source. ONGC spends about Rs 45-50 crores annually on this contract. “Why didn’t they ask for this helicopter to be fitted with a rescue winch? They could have kept the helicopter in the field 24/7, except for major servicing when the helicopter has to be brought back to Juhu base,” the source said.
Every day, before helicopters take off from Juhu airport for the ONGC rigs in Mumbai High, a pre-flight safety briefing is conducted. “It’s a televised briefing. After that passengers are shown how seat belts are fastened, how lifejackets are put, how the helicopter door can be thrown open if it ever goes down,” said a source. Then there is the HUET training. But surviving a stormy sea is a different matter altogether.
(The people TOI spoke to for this report requested anonymity).