Haldia, May 16: Around 6.30 Thursday evening, the radio crackled at the Haldia harbour master’s office. It was an SOS from the skipper of Sigitika Biru.
Crippled by a crack in its hull, the Indonesian cargo vessel sought permission to enter the shipping channel that leads into Haldia.
But the ship sank partially and ran aground at the mouth of the Hooghly river, about 120 km from Haldia, raising the spectre of an ecological disaster from the soda ash it is carrying.
All 22 crew members of the ship, bound for Chittagong in Bangladesh from Porbandar in Gujarat, were brought ashore to Haldia by the Indian Coast Guard late this evening.
When coast guard hovercraft H186 reached Sigitika Biru soon after getting the SOS, captain Teguh Supriyanto and his crew were battling to plug the leak that was slowly pulling the ship deeper into the water.
“Do you want to abandon ship'” the hovercraft crew called out over a loudhailer. Supriyanto, the only one on the ship who spoke English, cried “No”.
“The captain tried his best to stay on board and told us that they did not need immediate assistance,” said a coast guard member who was in the hovercraft.
Skipper Supriyanto and his courageous crew fought in the dark against the onrush of water from a choppy sea. “It is amazing how they tried to plug the leak, running the pumps all night,” the coast guard member said.
They had braved a storm earlier in the Bay of Bengal, but its after-effect proved a mightier enemy.
When a coast guard Dornier aircraft made a sortie over the stranded ship this morning and radioed the captain, Supriyanto was through with fighting. “It was then that the captain requested immediate evacuation,” said coast guard commandant R.K. Wadhwa.
A rescue vessel, MV Harsha, headed to the spot and on reaching, found the captain and crew perched on the deck towards the ship’s front, with most of the rear under water. The crew abandoned the ship to sail for Haldia in two lifeboats.
The 6,327 tonnes of soda ash, or sodium carbonate, inside the ship’s hold is a concern for the fragile marine environment. Besides the chemical, the ship has on board 150 tonnes of diesel which can cause a slick.
But the port appeared to have overcome the danger of the sinking vessel blocking the shipping channel after a tugboat succeeded in pulling it some distance. “The ship has been moved about five miles northeast from the channel,” Wadhwa said.
By evening, 60 per cent of the ship was under water. It was trapped in the sand with the tide ebbing away. Port officials said they would try and pull the ship towards port when the tide comes in at night.
Haldia officials got a pat on the back from visiting shipping minister Shatrughan Sinha. “They acted on sheer humanitarian grounds.”
Sigitika Biru sailed into a storm once it left a small port after refuelling on Tuesday. “They managed to escape the battering waves, but the crew discovered that the vessel was taking in water through a crack,” said a coast guard member quoting the captain.
Supriyanto then made a decision that may have saved his and his crew’s lives. He steered the ship towards Haldia, which was six hours away, instead of carrying on towards Chittagong, a 12-hour run.