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Offshore oil rig in flames

New Delhi/ Mumbai, July 27: Rain-rocked Mumbai was scalded by another disaster today as fire engulfed a rig in Bombay High, the country’s blockbuster offshore oilfield.

Over 300 ONGC personnel and sailors of a vessel that is said to have rammed into the rig were rescued from the burning platform but the fate of over 40 others is not known. Preliminary reports said the death of five people has been confirmed.

The fire broke out when a supply ship of the Shipping Corporation of India reportedly crashed into the oil processing platform due to turbulent weather.

Some people jumped into lifeboats to escape the flames and get to platforms nearby after the fire broke out around 4.30 pm. Bombay High, located about 160 km from the coast, has a string of oil and gas rigs or platforms in the sea.

Petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar said there were 385 people on the platform when the incident took place. ONGC officials said 343 people have been rescued.

Aiyar said the rig which was gutted and the ship together had about 2,000 personnel.

The armed forces have deployed three aircraft, four helicopters and eight ships to help in rescue and relief operations.

Rescue operations were hampered as ONGC’s helicopters in Mumbai were grounded because of floods and the few that were available faced rough sea and poor visibility.

“The choppy seas are certainly affecting the rescue efforts but we hope to get some air force helicopters over the area tomorrow morning when we should be able to pick up the remaining survivors,” a coast guard official said.

ONGC engineers live on the Bombay High platform, which is connected to 15 oil wells and pumps oil to the coast. It is fixed to the seabed 80 metres below the surface of the Arabian Sea.

The destroyed platform produced 80,000 barrels daily, out of a total Bombay High production of 260,000 barrels a day. Bombay High as a whole produces 14 per cent of the oil the country consumes and accounts for 38 per cent of all domestic production.

Aiyar said it would take several months for production to return to normal, though other platforms in the field continued to function normally. Platforms tend to be 2 to 3 km apart.

ONGC personnel have also abandoned another rig that was deployed near the gutted platform.

Each platform is manned round the clock and has live-in facilities for ONGC engineers and workers who have 14-day shifts.

While the staff members are flown in on Pawan Hans choppers, other supplies and heavy equipment are carried to the platform on vessels.

On any given day, as many as 100 to 150 men travel to and from the oilfield, going on and off duty.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is scheduled to make an aerial survey of the flood-affected areas of Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra tomorrow, is likely to take stock of the oil rig disaster.

Today’s blaze is the second major tragedy on the Bombay High offshore fields in less than two years. In 2003, ONGC had lost around 20 senior engineers in a helicopter crash at the offshore drilling platform Sagar Kiran.

This is also the second major fire on Bombay High since 1999. The earlier fire had taken several days to be brought under control.

India’s biggest gas field, Bassein, is also situated in this hydrocarbon-rich western offshore region.

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