Ever since cyclone Nilam left the Chennai coast last Wednesday, the city has only one spectacle - a stranded ship on its never ending shore. First it appeared on the trendier Elliot's Beach and later drifted to the beach of the masses, the Marina.
News reports were not exaggerating when they said all roads in Chennai led to the Marina after the incident. Traffic on the highway adjoining the beach has come to a crawl because of the rush of vehicles heading to the beach.
For four days, the hulk, MT Prathibha Cauvery, has remained an object of Chennai residents’s curiosity; but for the families of at least six sailors, the vessel is the symbol of a personal tragedy that could have been easily avoided, and the umpteenth failure of the Indian state.
Nilam hadn’t come unannounced and there had been sufficient time to take precautions. Still, a ship with 30-odd crew and 350-tonne furnace oil fell to the storm, and six sailors, mostly young men, lost their lives.
The incident took place right in front of the Chennai port, that envisions itself as “a futuristic port with foresight”, and the Coast Guard, that is committed to “assist marines in distress and safeguard life and property and sea.”
The accounts of what exactly happened to the ship have been disparate. While the Hindu appeared to justify the actions of the Chennai port and Coast Guard, putting most of the blame for the mishap on the ship itself, the Times of India gave a more rounded picture. The Hindu quoted officials saying that the ship was moving towards the storm while it was advised to move away, but what it didn’t say was why the ship was moving in the wrong direction.
The truth was in the evidence itself - the ship ran aground and six sailors died. And the Chennai port and the Coast Guard, failed to help a ship that was in distress and save six lives.
The sequence of events constructed by Times of India reads like a true disaster story without a happy ending.
The ship was short on fuel, food and water, and was at sea when the port relayed the cyclone warning by the meteorological department on Tuesday (28 October, the eve of the cyclone). Unable to move far and sensing trouble, the captain of the ship wanted to dock at Chennai port; but the latter was refused entry because apparently there was no berth for non-payers.
The next day, ship’s anchors and engine started failing and it began drifting. The ship was dangerously free-floating before the cyclone hit. The winds that were expected to follow could even topple the ship, killing the sailors on board and spilling all the oil it carried.
The ship asked the port for help again, but in vain, and kept sending distress messages as they were dangerously drifting in the strong winds. Still, nothing happened. The Coast Guard,which otherwise thrills the public with its stage-managed daredevilry, kept watching the situation unfolding into a big tragedy.
The explanation that one gathers from the news reports is that it was too late to attempt a rescue. But there is no answer to the question: why did the port authorities and the Coast Guard wait until it was too late?
The port may have been right in asking the ship's captain to head to high seas to avoid the impact of the cyclone and not to abandon the ship. But when the ship lost control and a 100 kmph cyclone was sweeping in, it was only natural for the captain to panic and ask the people to escape in a life boat.
With all the technology at its disposal and years of training, the Coast Guard should have been instinctive in sensing that there was trouble. As the events would demonstrate later, the fishermen on the Elliot's beach were more useful.
Twenty two sailors tried to escape in a lifeboat, which soon capsized. Six of them were washed away by the waves while the others either floated to shore or were saved by fishermen. In hindsight, the captain could have asked the sailors not to escape; but in a moment of crisis he didn’t have the luxury of weighing options.
The death toll could have been higher but for the unsung fishermen who risked their lives. While the Coast Guard, who are paid and equipped to “assist marines in distress” watched the disaster from safety, the fishermen braved the winds and surging waves to rescue the sailors.
Had the Coast Guard been present at the beach while the sailors tried to escape a few hundred feet away, they could have been saved.
The Chennai port and the Coast Guard may offer explanations that may appear valid, but the question that will be hard to answer is: why didn’t they ever act although the sailors had been asking for help right from the morning. What were they waiting for?
Isn’t it inhuman to cite technical reasons and allow people to die when they could have been saved?