Gordon Windsor could not sleep; the waves were pounding too hard. Though the 28-year-old derrickman wanted to rest up for his shift starting in five hours, in the end he got up and walked around. It was St. Valentine’s Day. About 7 p.m., Newfoundland Standard Time, a giant wave swatted the SEDCO 706 offshore oil drilling rig and, recalls Windsor, “the rig jolted two or three times.” Sensors in the SEDCO’s wave rider buoys measured the wave at 78 feet. From the main deck to the ocean is some 70 feet. “After that, they brought the rig five or 10 feet out of the water,” says Windsor. “Then the SEDCO rig hung off”—it stopped drilling and disengaged its pipe. Thirteen nautical miles away, the Zapata Ugland rig followed suit.
So, it is thought, did the Ocean Ranger, nine miles from the 706. As spasms of wind shook sturdy houses in the sheltered east end of St. John’s, 175 nautical miles to the east, a deadly storm collected its strength and struck.
The lowest deck hands on the Zapata and the SEDCO are pleased to boast of their rigs’ reputation of being tightly run, but a year and a half of continued operation had not dispelled the Ocean Ranger’s reputation as the Jonah of the Hibernia oilfields. Workers coming off
the other rigs would jokingly suggest their copter pilots stop off at the Ranger to “pick up a casualty.”
Gordon Windsor’s brothers, Stephen, 18, and Robert, 23, were on the Ranger. Even though Stephen had his hand mangled on the Ranger last summer, he had returned to the rig—where else could an 18-year-old make 20-odd thousand dollars a year? The Ranger had another pair of brothers, Harold and Robert LeDrew of Botwood, in central Newfoundland, who, had they not signed aboard the Ranger, might perhaps have faced a future of logging or working on the wharf—but a future nevertheless. As the Ranger’s shifts changed at midnight, 50 other Newfoundlanders, 14 mainland Canadians, 14 Americans, one Briton and one whose identity was withheld entered the last, short day of their lives.
The noon-to-midnight shift would have been coming off the main deck and heading down a flight of stairs to the changeroom and showers—and then on to the mess. Some may have had time to finish dinner. Shortly after 1 a.m., on Monday, Feb. 15, a man—perhaps dashing in, dripping with snow from the deck, perhaps scaling the stairs from below—entered the Telex room and typed out: “We are the ODECO Ocean Ranger KRTB location 46-43-33 N 04850-13 W and are experiencing a severe list of about 10 to 15 degrees and we are
in the middle of a severe storm at the time 12 degrees and progressing, request assistance ASAP. We are offshore drilling platform. Winds at this time are approximate from the west at approximately 75 knots. Rig is of the semisubmersible type and is listing severely 12 to 15 degrees to the port side.”
At the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Centre on Governor’s Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, Lieut. J. E. Frost went to his chattering machine. It was 1:19 NST. In two minutes, Frost had sent the message on to the Canadian Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) in Halifax. At 1:28, someone in the St. John’s office of Mobil Oil, which had leased the rig, phoned Halifax—the Ranger’s crew was preparing to evacuate—and the RCC alerted the 103 Search-and-Rescue squadron in Gander. Mobil last heard from the Ranger at 1:30 a.m., but at 2:06 a small Canadian Coast Guard substation at Cartwright, Labrador, picked up a weak repeated Mayday distress call—difficult to pinpoint, but probably from the Ranger. On the SEDCO 706, Gordon Windsor stared at a blank radar screen that should have shown the Ranger. He was losing two brothers. Somebody found him some sedatives.
What happened next is not entirely clear. According to Mobil’s East Coast manager, Steve Romansky, the service and supply ship Seaforth Highlander
should have been on the scene by then. The problem, in the darkness and the gale, was finding the rig’s position. By 2:30 three boats were on the scene, but, said Romansky, “they could not see anything on the radar image . . . there was a thought that one boat might have seen the Ranger’s lights.. . we don’t know if he’d actually seen the Ranger or some life jackets with the little lights on them that are put in for survival aid.”
It was no night for flying, but Mobil managed to launch its two powerful Sikorsky helicopters by 3 a.m., even-----
though the gale had skidded the copters and their tractors across the tarmac. By 4:30 they were flying low over the waves where the Ranger had been, but there was no rig. One copter picked up Gordon Windsor on the SEDCO 706 and brought him back to the city. By that time the first of the smaller armed forces helicopters had left Gander, and by 10 a.m. three lifeboats and several bodies had been spotted in the tremendous .waves. One Labrador helicopter dangled Master Cpl. Randy Brown on a 24-foot cable over one body, but the body was snatched away in the storm before he could grab it. The province hung on every radio newscast, but by 3 p.m. the coast guard reported no sign of life except the seagulls.
Meanwhile, 100 miles to the east, the Soviet container ship Mekhanik Tarasov had developed a 30-degree list, and at 3:10 p.m. its Montreal ships’ agents telephoned Halifax for help. Just before 6:30 the crew apparently changed their minds. Then, shortly after 11 p.m., the agents said the ship was listing 35 degrees and taking water: half an hour later she was going down. A Danish vessel whose ready assistance had earlier been refused was now an hour and a half away. The Danish ship radioed “18 souls on board, four or five alive.”
Rumors began that the Tarasov had been speeding to the Ocean Ranger’s rescue when she foundered. But the Halifax rescue centre asked New York for a computerized alert of
any merchant ships in the Ocean Ranger area, and, although one was indeed reported within 100 miles of the rig’s position, Search and Rescue now believes that all the two incidents have in common is Monday’s storm.
In Newfoundland, disbelief—that the world’s largest drilling rig, now part of Newfoundland’s furniture, could be gone—merged into suspicion. Bowing to the ground swell of opinion in the province, Mobil announced it would immediately pull in the SEDCO and the Zapata for an exhaustive examination. Yet such measures could not solve Newfoundlanders’ pent-up grief, anger and wonderment, and by Thursday the repressed, impotent frustration in St. John’s was almost palpable. Catharsis was in order, and the 2,000 people who attended Friday’s ecumenical service in the town’s huge old Roman Catholic
basilica, together with more thousands
watching the service on television, could finally begin to exhale their grief:
They received their catharsis, not to mention a stiff dose of political medicine, from the pulpit. With Premier Brian Peckford and Energy Minister William Marshall captive in the front row, St. John’s Roman Catholic Archbishop A. L. Penney called on Ottawa and Newfoundland “to rethink the possibility of a joint inquiry into this terrible accident.”
---Even before the official admissions, the Windsors knew when Gordon came home that Richard and Stephen had made their last trip to the rigs. Gordon and a fourth brother, 21-year-old Roger, who alternated with Gordon on the 706, may also have made their last trip. They don’t know. Said Howard Windsor, Gordon’s father: “When Gord got picked up, he knew then that the boys were gone. And still and all, we came in here and we were listening to it at 10 in the morning, and it was shocking that she was still afloat, and all this.”
The Windsors, John LeDrew of Botwood, who also lost two sons, and hundreds of other relatives and friends of the 84 dead will long remain sad and bewildered. Moreover, conflicting media reports, Mobil’s tight-lipped public relations efforts over the early hours of the tragedy and the silence of the ODECO’s local representatives have stirred up resentment.
More and more bodies, from both disasters, were brought to Pier 17 in St. John’s, and company representatives and Soviet legates joined the Newfoundlanders in the task of identifying their dead. Two one-man minisubs were expected to probe the 250-foot depths at the Hibernia site this week, hoping to find the rig, or pieces of it. Light may ultimately be shed on the Ocean ö Ranger mystery, but the 2 first chapter of New| foundland’s oil development, which opened with headlong enthusiasm, &t; has closed on a note u of sombre caution.
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