Listen to the voices of the crew, murmuring to us since that fateful day.
She was built in the mid 1970’s by Mitsubishi for the New Orleans based Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company (ODECO). Measuring around 120 m wide by 80 m deep and standing around 100 m high, the Ocean Ranger was the biggest and the best, designed to drill through the sea bed in search of oil under the toughest of conditions. After completing a series of wells in Ireland, New Jersey and Alaska, in 1982 she found herself on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, working alongside two other rigs–they were all in sight of one another—busily punching wells into the Hibernia oil field.
On Valentines Day, February 14 the ‘Ocean Danger’ as she was sometimes referred to by many of the 84 souls on board at the time, (a combination of ODECO employees and external service contractors) was in the process of drilling her third. A fast-moving intense storm was reported and the rig had to break off drilling. It was not done as per spec—in fact the drill had to be sheared to get it off in time.
The Ocean Ranger and her crew faced the storm. Just twelve huge (20 tonne) anchors on the bottom and two 120 metre pontoons ‘floating’ beneath the waves; that’s what the crew had going for them. The wind was fierce—over 100 knots (190 km/hr). The waves were worse.
Then there’s resonance and interference. Waves can combine; gang up on the structures they face. Most of the waves may be ‘only’ 20 metres high. But some—we call them rogues—can be much higher. Those are destroyers. They were active that night; one of the nearby rigs was hit hard and reported damage.
Onshore, safely tucked away in my room at Residence at Memorial University I watched the storm. Fourth year and house president, I had the luxury of a single room. It was bad on land too. The wind blew the snow into drifts. Wind gusts would slam against the windows. But they held.
On the Ocean Ranger one porthole didn’t hold. Probably the work of a rogue wave; nobody alive knows for sure. Sea water came in. It is said that the Ranger had design flaws; this is one: the ballast control room was on one of the huge uprights and not safely up on deck out of the way. It is thought that the sea water played havoc with the ballast control. The Ranger started listing. This was radioed out. The crews on the nearby rigs and standby ships heard it but were doubtless facing their own battles with the elements.
It all worsened.
At home we did what we always do: stayed in, thankful of the fact they we were protected from the elements. No—sadly, not thankful… Oblivious might be more the word.
Early to bed—not as peaceful as listening to steady rain on a roof, maybe. There is still something about a winter storm that makes it easy to just lie there and let the broken rhythm of the wind and snow on the windows lull you to sleep.
Early in the morning of the 15th, with the list continuing to worsen, and the storm still raging, a Mayday was radioed and all hands were ordered to abandon. At least some made it to a lifeboat, which was launched, and around 20 individuals were seen floating in the water. About an hour and a half later the Ranger was gone.
Back on land, the next morning was bright and sunny. The storm had moved on. There were no classes and so, with nothing much to do, I went to the window and snapped this picture. I think it’s the one anyway.
I still recall the sounds: The loud grinding roar of the snow-clearing equipment as it all went about its business, the scuffing swish that was Maurice Kelly clearing the walkways around the place. And then the shouts from the guys in the hallway as we learned what had happened to the Ocean Ranger just hours earlier. The search was on for survivors.
There were none.
And the Ranger wasn’t done at that point either. Two more souls were lost during the salvage/recovery operation over the next two years.
Thirty-one years have not dulled the memories of the families left without fathers, sons, husbands and brothers. The quiet voices of the lost continue to be heard as workers and families continue to strive for safety in the industry. Improvements have been made and a culture of safety now exists among the workers.
But not all hear the voices. It’s still dangerous work. Lives are still lost and lessons have not been learned by all.
We continue to pursue the liquid energy that exists deep within the Earth’s crust. Some are willing to risk the lives of the people involved, blindly oblivious to the lessons that have been learned at so high a cost. Still more are willing to put, not just the lives of people, but even the health of the planet at risk in the even-newer pursuits. “We’re only breaking some of the shale. It won’t harm the groundwater. We need the energy. Trust us.”
No. Not until you listen. Listen to the 84 voices who have been calling to us since ’81. Listen to the 17 more from Cougar Flight 491 that joined them in ’09.
When you listen you will learn and we will find a better way.
Until then, we will remember.