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Fire toll mounts, rescuers trapped
- It’s like being reborn: Survivor

Mumbai/New Delhi, July 28: The toll in the Bombay High fire tragedy doubled to 10 this evening with another 14 still missing as Coast Guard ships and aircraft battled an oil spill headed in the direction of the Mumbai coast.

To make matters worse, six divers on search and rescue mission were reported trapped under the oil rig’s rubble.

The BHN platform “has gone down completely”, a source said, but 355 people working on and around it have been rescued. Many have been brought to Mumbai’s Victoria Docks on naval ships.

“It’s like being reborn,” said one of the survivors, Subrata Jana, as he sat in an ONGC car that would take him home.

Among the less lucky were six ONGC employees and one each from the multipurpose support vessel (MSV) that had rammed into the platform, causing the blaze, and the chartered drilling rig Noble Charlie Yester operating near BHN.

A thin sheen of oil emanating from the platform had spread 28 nautical miles to the southeast this evening and was 65 nautical miles west of Mumbai’s coastline.

A source at Coast Guard’s New Delhi headquarters said an estimated 80 tonnes of crude had spilled on to the sea from a ruptured pipe on the platform. The spill, however, was “minor” and “we do not anticipate any threat to the environment”, the source added.

Four Dornier aircraft have been deployed for oil spill dispersal and search and rescue operations. Two ships, Sagar and Vigraha, were spraying chemical dispersants on the slick along with the aircraft.

Vessels carrying survivors to Mumbai set off extraordinary scenes of joy among families gathered at Victoria Docks. The ships also brought in two bodies.

“We had just returned after a tea-break when we heard a series of explosions,” Jana told reporters. “It was dark. We climbed down the ladder and got into a rescue boat. After an hour, the rescue ship, Neel Akash, picked us up.”

Mukul Gupta, still wearing orange overalls, first relayed a message to his family in Panvel through TV crews. “We are trained how to escape in emergency situations. We just did that. We wore life vests and jumped into the sea. Neel Akash rescued us,” he said.

ONGC officials said some of the survivors had suffered burns and were being treated.

Petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar told the Lok Sabha that the tragedy happened when the Shipping Corporation of India-operated MSV, Samudra Suraksha, lost control, drifted and collided with the platform.

He said the platform was insured for $195 million and the MSV, also damaged in the fire, for $60 million.

In Mumbai, Aiyar told reporters that a three-member committee headed by former ONGC chairman S.K. Manglik will probe the cause of the blaze. The panel will include former GAIL chairman and managing director S.S. Cheema and ONGC’s former director (technical) Ishwari Dutt and will be assisted by Royal Dutch Shell. A report is expected in three months.

ONGC chairman Subir Raha, who arrived in Mumbai during the small hours, said: “Our engineers have worked through the night to develop an alternative scheme and with that we expect to restore at least 70 per cent of the production loss within the next four weeks.”

Raha said the force with which the MSV hit the platform perhaps ruptured an oil pipe which then caught fire. He said the 15 wells that poured oil into BHN shut automatically when the fire broke out.

The fire-ravaged processing platform accounted for 30 per cent of the 365,000 barrels produced every day from the Bombay High oilfield. Raha said a new platform will have to be built to replace the completely destroyed BHN.

“That will take anywhere between one and two years but we are confident of restoring the production levels of 110,000 barrels per day in less than six months,” he declared.

BHN, built in 1981, separated gas and impurities from the crude oil produced from 15 wells in its neighbourhood before feeding it into the Bombay High-Uran trunk crude oil pipeline that carried it to the shore.

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