An aftermath of sorrow and anger

Michael Clugston March 1 1982

An aftermath of sorrow and anger

Michael Clugston March 1 1982

An aftermath of sorrow and anger

Michael Clugston

From a hilltop over the city the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. John’s faces squarely out through the pinched harbor entrance, as if it were a headstone over the cold Atlantic beyond. Its twin spires are landmarks that have borne the last farewell for generations of seamen who did not return from their fishing, sealing or waging war upon the ocean.

Rising from the narrow streets into the blue sky, these old grey spans were never more poignant metaphors than they were last week when once again Newfoundland gave up scores of its men to the sea and the old building resonated to the words of the hymn that is Newfoundland’s cri de coeur at such times: “Oh, hear us when we cry to thee, for all in peril on the sea.”

Then the shop girls, the rumpled dock workers, matrons from the rich neighborhoods, businessmen and officials moved slowly back into the sunshine. Several blocks below the church, moored to the wharf, the ship Hudson bore the bodies of some of the men who had drowned or frozen to death in stark, lonely moments of terror, panic and heroism— the depths of which can only be guessed at—a few short days before.

Though the ceremonies of bereavement have worn familiar in Newfoundland, the Ocean Ranger disaster has left a taste of grief with a sharp tang of anger and bitterness. After initial reactions, many government and industry representatives refused to make any public statements, but the daily press, radio and television quickly found former workers from the rig who would talk. Under such headlines as SAFETY WAS IGNORED and RIG DIDN’T HAVE VALID CERTIFICATE, the public debate in taxis, bars and wherever people met was steered through grief and toward recrimination.

Launched in a deepening sea of public frustration were the governmental in-

vestigations—by the province, the federal government and the U.S. Coast Guard—that have extremely weighty agendas. There is much they must try to find out. Why did the enormous rig go down in the sort of storm it was built to survive with little more effect than annoyance to the pool players in the recreation room? Did the men have enough emergency training and equipment to have a chance of escaping safely and

surviving until rescue came? Are there dangerous gaps in areas of complex jurisdiction over the offshore oil business and certification of the rigs themselves? Should such rigs even be drilling in winter seas subject to waves as high as five-storey buildings and winds so strong that they can slide rescue helicopters and their tractors around slick airport runways and make the equipment useless? It is not known whether—even with the best training and equipmentavailable—men in small lifeboats have a chance of surviving in

such seas, if the boats can be launched at all.

After the sinking, the initial surprise among experts was reminiscent of the shock that followed the sinking of the Titanic. So great was the apparent faith in the rig’s ability to ride out the mountainous seas that a rig superintendent said confidently that the vessel could never sink.

Theories about the sinking ran to the possibility of metal fatigue and the breaking off of a part, which might cause disastrous flooding. Since the rig is not now visible from the air, ran the argument, it must have broken up, because even on its side the massive structure would have poked through the surface at its 250-foot depth.

A reporter in New Orleans, headquarters of Ocean Drilling & Exploration Company (ODECO), which designed and built the rig, speculated that it may have been rammed by the Soviet freighter Mekhanik Tarasov, which sank the next morning with 32 men. But reporters at a news conference held by Mobil Oil asked if the sinking could possibly be connected to a mishap that had occurred Feb. 6, when a control room operator accidently overweighted one side of the rig by improperly distributing liquid ballast, tilting the rig briefly by some 10 or 15 degrees. The vessel was righted before the abandon-ship _ order was given. But in °the prickly news conference, an exhausted and embattled Steve Romansky, East Coast representative for Mobil, said there was no connection between the two events, since the first had been simply a short-lived human error. The next question from the floor—how could Romansky rule that out when he had just said he didn’t know what happened to the rig—immediately became one of the week’s main imponderables.

No structural weaknesses have been revealed concerning the Ocean Ranger, but Maclean's has learned that another

of ODECO’s rigs, a sister ship in the Ocean Ranger series called the Dyvi Delta, now drilling in the North Sea, will have to have two additional platform legs attached during its next refit. Norwegian authorities privately expressed concern about its stability. Other doubts were raised about the ability of the Ranger’s three lifeboats to survive high seas—or even get launched at all. “Launching lifeboats from any vessel in 80-knot winds and 50-foot seas is next to impossible. There really is no technology to do it safely,” says Lieut. Peter Blaisdell, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston.

Still, ODECO has no intention of withdrawing any of its 16 semisubmersible rigs around the world for unscheduled inspections, despite the fact that last week Mobil ordered its two rigs remaining off Newfoundland into port. “I would have had no hesitation of putting my entire family on that rig anywhere in the world for an extended period of time,” said a deluged AÍ Spindler, the ODECO spokesman at company headquarters in New Orleans. ODECO’s view is that the sinking—however it occurred—was a freak, an anomaly that does not indict the technology.

The Newfoundland government of Premier Brian Peckford is holding Mobil responsible for the disaster. Wherever the ultimate blame may come to roost, as former workers on the rig came forward with accounts of negligence and shoddy training aboard the rig they called the “Ocean Danger,” it at least seemed as though the men on it might not have had the best chance of getting away from the vessel safely.

“What convinced me that something wasn’t right was when we had that actual alarm, and there were guys milling around who didn’t know what to do,” said Robert St. Aubin three days after the disaster. An ice and weather observer on the Ranger, St. Aubin watched in dismay during the Feb. 6

alert. Too many men appeared at one lifeboat station; there were too few life jackets to go around; and a lifeboat motor would not start. A former roustabout on the rig also reported that shortly before the accident he noticed the lifeboat seatbelts were too corroded to work. (If a lifeboat motor is not running when the boat hits the water, it may be smashed into the rig by the waves. If the men are not strapped into their places, the covered, “selfrighting” lifeboats will not right themselves.)

Some ODECO employees—many of whom would not be identified in print for fear of losing their jobs—called ODECO’s safety training program desperately inadequate. ODECO has safety officers on each rig, and they are supposed to show films on board, demonstrate the use of fire extinguishers and other equipment, and organize emergency drills. But lifeboat drill, according to one man who had worked on the rig for six months, was worthless,

since everyone on board knew it would be held at 1 p.m. on Sundays. The crew seldom got into the lifeboats, closed the hatches or even attempted to start up the motors.

ODECO’s Spindler said the company pioneered safety work on oil rigs in 1979 by hiring safety men, a program that cost them $3.2 million (U.S.) last year in salaries and training alone. But he adds that, in the light of the disaster, his company could very well consider adopting tough Norwegian standards, which demand three weeks of marine emergency training for each person on board. The Zapata Ugland, a rig that is off Newfoundland and chartered by Mobil, has adopted those standards.

Some of the harshest words of the week came when the rig’s American former captain, Karl Nehring, charged that the Ranger ignored a U.S. Coast Guard inspection that had found 200 faults on the Ranger. “Sour grapes,” retorts Spindler, who says Nehring quit the company in “disappointing” circumstances. ODECO reportedly refused Nehring’s request to finance his private oil exploration venture in Central America. And rather than 200 faults, Spindler allowed that, by his standards, a mere 120 had been found during an unofficial examination of the rig that the Ranger had invited in preparation for a formal coast guard inspection. As for Nehring’s claim that the Newfoundlanders-first regulations of the provincial government had forced him to replace a top American control room crew with tyros from the island, Spindler points out that there was one Newfoundlander control room operator and one experienced American on the rig when it sank.

The clang of controversy can only add to the grief of Newfoundlanders. But it is not the first time families have had to pay for the growing pains of rapid oil development. The worst offshore drilling disaster remains the capsizing

off Norway of the U.S.-leased Alexander L. Kielland, with the loss of 123 lives in March, 1980.

The Kielland, a sort of stripped-down Holiday Inn for off-duty oil workers from neighboring rigs, turned turtle after one of its five legs collapsed in the storm-torn Norwegian sector of the North Sea oilfields. A subsequent investigation uncovered damning evidence of poor rig design, construction and safety procedures. The Norwegians moved quickly to shore up safety and inspection. The most significant result was the recent requirement that Norwegian-sector rigs must be modified to withstand both the loss of a supporting leg and a list of 35 degrees without toppling over. The Ocean Ranger was abandoned after it had developed a list of 15 degrees.

As recriminations flew around St. John’s last week, it became clear that a muddled government had not come to terms with Canada’s shiny new offshore oil industry. “It all smells very reminiscent of the kind of total chaos that prevailed in the North Sea when it first started,” says W.G. Carson,

British oil industry safety critic and author of the book The Other Price of Britain's Oil. The jurisdictional squabble between Ottawa and Newfoundland, which has both federal and provincial oil rig inspectors regulating the platforms, is aggravated by the continuing dispute over which government owns the revenues from the seabed off Newfoundland.

Even more confusing for many Canadians was the recognition that responsibility for the safety inspections of rigs with largely Canadian crews rests with American authorities. If Canada declared the rigs to be installations attached to the Grand Banks by anchors, Canada could enforce safety rules. But in practice rigs are universally viewed as ships, and safety checks done by their country of origin are internationally accepted. Canadian-leased rigs currently in Spanish waters, for example, are inspected by Canadian officials.

In the case of the Ocean Ranger, U.S. safety regulations appear to be admirably stringent. The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) demands an annual righull and machinery survey and a drydock structural inspection every four years. The U.S. Coast Guard throws in another structural and safety check every two years. It was this last inspection that was two months overdue when the Ocean Ranger went down.

Until submersible subs from the

supply ship Balder Cabot view the wreckage, however, no one will know what caused the Ocean Ranger to founder. Most experts say it should have been able to ride out last week’s storm, which was not considered startlingly severe. Even though westerly winds made the waves unusually steep and may have churned up an occasional monstrous wave more than 90 feet high, Hibernia is generally considered to have waves 40-per-cent smaller than the Norwegian Ekofisk drilling area in the North Sea. “The weather just shouldn’t have been a problem,” says Tommy Bicknell, director of training for the Southeastern Drilling Company (SEDCO) of Dallas, third-largest rig op-

erators after Dallas’ Penrod Drilling Company and ODECO. As for structural problems, any clues to that turned up in inspections have been sealed up by the U.S. Coast Guard and ABS, pending their own inquiry.

What is clear is that Premier Peckford has hooked his province’s economic star to offshore riches and that pressure on the oil industry to perform will not slacken. Federal Finance Minister Allan MacEachen has estimated that 1982 will see $400 million in capital spent on East Coast offshore exploration, up from $200 million in 1980. (British estimates of capital investment in North Sea oil nudge $47 billion.)

The sinking of the Ranger and the withdrawal of the other two Mobil Hibernia rigs jeopardize plans to begin

commercially exploiting the area’s estimated 1.8 billion barrels of oil. It had been hoped that government permits could have been approved by the end of 1982 and production begun by 1987, with the creation of 20,000 jobs.

It is those hurry-up pressures that critics charge contribute to tragedies such as that of the Ocean Ranger. “The problem is that you get a combination of political and economic circumstances that lead the authorities to give priority to getting the oil out of the ground,” says Carson. “Safety is shunted into second place.”

For its part, industry argues that it is unfair to generalize on the basis of one tragedy. “There are structures that are built and perform well without knowing everything there is to be known about them,” says Prof. Barry Vickery of the University of Western Ontario, who tests the effect of wind on oil rigs. “That isn’t to say we should remain still while science races ahead to provide all the answers.”

Still, insurance companies, perhaps looking at the $1.7-billion lawsuit brought this month against the lessors of the Alexander Kielland by the families of the victims, are becoming alarmed. According to the annual report of the Institute of London Underwriters, they are concerned about the increase in frequency and amount of oillease claims. Since 1979, a dozen rigs have sunk, capsized or caught fire with the loss of 299 lives, as oil exploration has pushed into deeper and more difficult international waters. Some see the timing of what appears to be exhaustive inquiries into the Ocean Ranger tragedy as opportune. Certainly the families of the Ocean Ranger’s dead want answers.

If a sense of betrayal grew stronger through Newfoundland’s longest week of the year, it went beyond questions of remiss jurisdictions, certificates, responsibilities and technologies. In the Basilica of St. John’s, Archbishop A.L. Penney addresssed 2,000 mourners: “What makes this tragedy so benumbing?” he asked. “This disaster has its own special desolation because it is associated with a venture which was bright with promise.” If oil brings an unfamiliar prosperity to the island, its price is a familiar sorrow, consoled by an old, familiar benediction: “May the Almighty God grant peace to all those who are suffering.”

With Thomas Hopkins and files from Carol Bruman, David Foist er, John Hay, Randolph Joyce, Ian Mather and Jane O'Hara.