| A crash survivor (third from left) in Mumbai. (PTI)
Mumbai, Aug. 11: Public sector giant ONGC was in turmoil tonight after a helicopter carrying its officials plunged into the Arabian Sea, casting a cloud on the fate of 24 people and setting off a wave of outrage that threatened to snowball into a rebellion.
At least three of the 25 officials and four crew members in the chopper died when it crashed 60 km off Mumbai’s shore on its way back from an oil rig. Two persons have been rescued and 24 listed as missing.
The biggest crash in ONGC’s history occurred at 12.18 pm, a couple of minutes after the MI-172 helicopter took off from the Sagar Kiran oil rig at Bombay High. The aircraft, belonging to the private firm Mesco, dived nose first into the choppy waters.
Unofficial sources in the Coast Guard held out little hope of more survivors after approaching darkness aborted rescue attempts. “The chopper lost control about three minutes post-take-off,’’ a Coast Guard official said.
ONGC employees roughed up petroleum minister Ram Naik and demanded suspension of the company’s chairman and managing director Subir Raha.
The company’s officers have threatened to go on strike from Wednesday and demanded a CBI probe. Bombay High offshore fields account for almost two-thirds of ONGC’s oil output. “We do not want anything less than the suspension of Raha,” L.K. Mirchandani, the chief of the company’s Association of Scientific and Technical Officials, said.
The heckled Naik announced a compensation package but refused a categorical statement on the employees’ demands.
Naik said a time-bound inquiry by the aviation ministry has been ordered along with another on inspection of all chopper flights to Bombay High.
Mirchandani, however, said: “We have rejected the assurance of the minister that he would conduct an inquiry.” He said the employees had long been petitioning the management to ensure chopper safety. “But all we got was a letter saying our demands will be looked into.’’
The bodies of chopper commander Captain Jaiswal and flight engineer Ravindra were kept at the Juhu air base, while the rescued ONGC officials, S. Mandloi and A.J. Mhatre, were sent home to Navi Mumbai, ONGC director (offshore) V.K. Sharma said. The third dead is unidentified.
Sources said Mesco, which was supplying the Russian-made MI-172 to ONGC on a “call-on’’ basis, did not have a “foolproof” history of aviation safety. They said its flight permit had been cancelled in September 2001 after an aviation ministry inquiry. The licence was renewed last July.
Mesco director Natasha Singh denied that her company’s fleet was at fault and refuted charges of overcrowding. Announcing an inquiry by the firm’s technical team, she said: “Until then, it is too premature to say anything. However, our airworthiness had been certified only last year and the chopper was a relatively new aircraft, made in 1995.’’