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Eyebrows raised over inordinate delay in seeking Indian help

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SLPA’s only tug ineffective; ‘Hercules’ in epic evacuation mission

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Controversy surrounds the inordinate delay on Sri Lanka’s part to seek Indian assistance for fighting the fire onboard Singaporean flagged X-Press Pearl anchored 9.5 nautical miles northwest of the Colombo port.

Sri Lanka sought Indian assistance on the afternoon of 25 May, five days after the Captain of the container carrier MV X-Press Pearl requested SLN support to douse the fire.

The SLN has responded to the distress call on the afternoon of 20 May.

The fire erupted on the night of 19 May 19 at a time the vessel operated by the world’s largest feeder operator, X-Press Feeders was in anchorage.

The examination of available information revealed that the SLN requested for Indian backing to fight the major conflagration as well as pollution control after a huge blast on the vessel, which had a raging fire among some of the containers on its deck for more than four days.

Well informed sources said that the blast ripped through the stack of containers at 4.30 am, on May 25th. Sources said that the blast deprived the firefighters whatever chance they had in bringing the situation under control.

Responding to The Island queries, sources explained by the time Indian assistance was sought, the battle was clearly lost.

Sources pointed out that by the time Sri Lanka sought Indian intervention, the brand new vessel had been abandoned with the 25-member crew comprising 25 Philippine, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals evacuated by the firefighters. The evacuation coincided with the fire overwhelming the firefighters, sources said, acknowledging Sri Lanka obviously lacked the capacity to undertake such a daunting challenge.

Evacuation of all-foreign crew had been carried out by tug ‘Hercules’ chartered by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Sources said that in spite of the huge risk, the ‘Hercules’ crew carried out the evacuation, successfully, under extremely difficult conditions and they were brought ashore. By the time, Indian assistance had been sought, the ship was even listing and some of the containers on its deck had fallen overboard, sources said.

Inquiries revealed that the SLPA lacked the strength to engage in such a firefighting exercise. The SLPA tug ‘Megha’ in spite of being dispatched to the scene of the fire on May 20th hadn’t been able to make a difference. The vessel hadn’t been properly equipped therefore the SLPA had no option but to withdraw it and send two tugs ‘Hercules’ and ‘Posh Hardy’ on May 21 and May 22, respectively.

The Island learns that the SLPA had taken those tugs on long lease from Sri Lanka Shipping Company in 2018. However, another tug ‘Posh Husky’ also taken on long lease from the same company hadn’t been in a position for deployment due to what some sources called ‘equipment issues.’

Subsequently, two other tugs, ‘Mahawewa’ and ‘Aries’ owned by Sri Lanka Shipping Company had been deployed as the situation rapidly deteriorated. Two foreign tugs, ‘Posh Teal’ and ‘Shalwar’ that had arrived here on the night of May 22 and May 23 morning, respectively failed to bring the situation under control either. They belonged to world renowned ‘Salvors.’

By the time Indian assets arrived in Sri Lankan waters the firefight had been lost and the operation transformed to a pollution control mission. Sources said that the country hadn’t experienced a similar situation since independence though the SLN with Indian Coast Guard backing managed to control a fire onboard oil tanker ‘New Diamond’s carrying more than a quarter of a million tonnes of crude oil off the East coast in early September 2020.

Sources said that in spite of successive governments vowing to transform Colombo harbour to a maritime hub a genuine attempt hadn’t been made to achieve that privileged status. The fire onboard ‘New Diamond’ and the ongoing inferno off the Negombo coast exposed the failure on the part of the SLPA to build up its own firefighting capacity.

When Indian assets, Coast Guard vessels Vaibhav, Vajra and Samudra Prehari and tug ‘Water Lilly’ dispatched by Director General Shipping there, in addition to Dornier aircraft for aerial reconnaissance had been on their way, the firefight had been lost, sources said. According to a statement dated May 25th issued in the evening by the Indian High Commission in Colombo, having received Sri Lanka’s request in the afternoon, Dornier aircraft reached Colombo at 4 pm on the same day and the first vessel was to reach the scene by 7 pm.

X-Press Pearl carried 1,486 containers with 25 tons of Nitric Acid, several other chemicals and cosmetics from the port of Hazira, India on 15th May 2021.

Speculation is rife that those responsible, including the X-Press Pearl crew hadn’t made a proper assessment of the situation therefore failed to take tangible measures, on time.

The initial SLN deployment on May 20th afternoon comprised Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) SLNS Sagara, Sindurala and a Fast Attack Craft (FAC).

According to an SLN statement, the ill-fated vessel had arrived at the location (9.5 nautical miles northwest) on the 19th of May and was awaiting its entry into the Colombo harbour.

Inclement weather hampered operations, sources said, pointing out that the government had to address the issue as it was battling both fast spreading Covid-19 pandemic and floods.

Regardless of inclement weather the Air force on two days dropped dry chemical powder on the vessel.

Sources said that Sri Lanka should acquire firefighting capability. Perhaps, following the end of the war, 12 years ago some of the SLN vessels could have been properly equipped to meet emergency situation, sources said. The SLPA should apprise the environment and take whatever tangible measures as such expertise and strengths couldn’t be procured overnight, sources said.



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Employees’ Trust Fund Act No. 46 of 1980 to be amended

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Cabinet nod for MOU between the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives on Cultural Cooperation

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Outgoing Bulgarian Ambassador calls on the President

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(pic PMD)

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