The Vinland, a towering gasdrilling rig, was anchored 12 nautical miles off the northern tip of Sable Island in the Atlantic Ocean last week when highly explosive gases suddenly began leaking from its drilling pipe, creating the instant threat of another maritime tragedy. A single spark would have ignited the gas, turning the rig, with 76 workers aboard, into a giant torch. But the evacuation and eventual rescue of the Shell Canada Resources Ltd. employees from two covered lifeboats ended with a single fatality: a crew member who suffered a heart attack. By week’s end, as two well-capping specialists from Houston waited for clear weather to begin the delicate job of plugging the blowout, there did not appear to be any serious risk of major pollution to either Sable Island or mainland Nova Scotia, about 170 nautical miles to the west.
Shell was using the Vinland, painted bright orange and rising 335 feet from its keel to the top of its derrick, to estimate the size of a promising gas reserve when the accident occurred. The blowout shook the rig “like a tremendous explosion,” one crewman said. It also revived memories of the last oil rig disaster in Canada’s marine drilling industry, the sinking of the Ocean Ranger off the coast of Newfoundland in a savage winter storm in February, 1982, with the loss of all 84 crew members. And it focused attention on the regulations, safety equipment and rescue procedures designed to protect workers.
At 10:32 p.m., two minutes after the explosion occurred, the Vinland radioed the Halifax Search and Rescue Centre with the emergency message that 73
men and three women were abandoning the rig and boarding the lifeboats. They changed first into waterproof survival suits. Then they climbed quickly into two bulbous, self-balancing lifeboats. They lowered themselves down the equivalent of seven storeys in complete darkness into the 10-foot ocean swells below. “The next nine hours were horrible,” a crewman recalled. (He, like his fellow workers, requested anonymity after Shell Canada ordered its employees not to talk to reporters.)
“Everyone was seasick and throwing up, and the boat was bobbing and going up and down like an elevator. We were not sure if we would make it out alive.”
But their luck held. Two oil company supply ships, which were stationed near the rig in case of emergencies, took the red fibreglass pods in tow. But rescue organizers decided that trying to airlift the workers to shore in the dark was too dangerous because flares needed to illuminate the area might have ignited the escaping gas. As a result, the rig workers spent an uncomfortable night in the lifeboats while three Search and Rescue helicopters circled overhead. Then, at dawn the supply ships plucked the exhausted survivors from the lifeboats, and by noon helicopters had flown them to Halifax airport. There, doctors examined them before sending them home. Their relief was tempered, however, when they learned that Robert Lamb, 30, a cement installer from Fall River, N.S., had died of a heart attack during the rescue. “But we can stop thinking about what happened to the men on the Ocean Ranger,” said one crewman, as he walked to his car accompanied by his obviously relieved wife.
Since the loss of the Ranger, lax Canadian attitudes and guidelines have become tougher. They require that all rigs carry survival suits. And the Vinland was even safer than the law demanded. Vinland’s Norwegian owners, Sverre Ditlev-Simonsen Drilling, and its operator, Shell Canada Resources Ltd., required that all their offshore employees complete a course in marine emergency training in order to qualify for jobs. As well, the Norwegian officers on board kept the rig and its emergency equipment well-maintained and they conducted safety drills with military exactness. “I thought that they were going a bit overboard with the drills and maintenance,” said one crew member. “I will never think that again. With the Norwegians guiding us, we are in the safest possible hands.”
At week’s end a storm moved over the abandoned rig, raising fears that lightning might ignite the gas spewing from the Vinland. The high winds also blew escaping gases over the rig’s helicopter pad, preventing the two experts from the Texas firm of Boots and Coots Inc. from landing. “We do not want to do anything to create a spark,” said Shell Canada spokesman Laurie Taylor, noting that Transport Canada had banned ships and planes from the area. “Fire is a very real danger.”
The oil rig’s name is now linked to a dramatic sea rescue; now Nova Scotia is hoping that the men from Texas will be able to make that the most memorable event of the Vinland saga.
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