Will We Forget the Price they Paid?

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.

Image of Ocean Ranger from NL Heritage website

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.

Not a soul survived to tell us what had happened.

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.

 Looking Out My Window across at the Premier's Residence, the Morning After

Looking Out My Window across at the Premier’s Residence, the Morning After

 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.

And time…

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.

Ocean Ranger Memorial. From Heritage.nf.ca

Until then, we will remember.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
This entry was posted in Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Will We Forget the Price they Paid?

  1. Maurice, I clicked ‘Like’ but WordPress should really offer a ‘I was moved’ button. Because your post was eloquent and deeply moving. Thank you.

  2. Josephine Barry says:

    Remembering this day all too well . As we heard the news we all gathered to Grandmothers and Pop’s place to be with them as we wait to hear news of our uncle , Moms brother and their son . I remember Pop being sick at the time and I truly think the eventual breaking of this tragic news broke his heart to the point of no fixing .Our Uncle Din was a great man full of badness as they say but a heart of gold he is always remembered with loving memories as is my Pop who passed away months later another great man love him and miss him to this day ❤ .Sometimes I think people are always to focused on making the almighty dollar and unfortunate some pay the ultimate price !!

  3. Very touching Maurice. I wish we learned from these sacrifices. There should be better ways and alternatives are emerging already…

    • I wish so too. The problem is that so many who could effect change are either blind or deaf to the message or simply don’t care. I take heart, though, in the thought that the many quiet voices are persistent…and maybe their voices will join in chorus.

  4. Krista Blizzard says:

    Beautifully written Maurice. Thank you.

  5. Living in West Virginia, where so many coal miners’ lives have been lost due to “short cuts” in the name of profits and where fracking is now being considered as the “answer”, to the dying coal industry, this speaks to me. Thank you.

    • I didn’t write it in but there’s no doubt that at much responsibility for the Ocean Ranger tragedy lies with the arrogance and indifference to life shown by some at the highest levels of management and operations at the time. The crew repeatedly pointed out serious safety issues due to operating procedures, lack of safety protocols and the already-mentioned design flaws. Typically these were treated with arrogant assurances that (a) the Ranger was safe and (b) what you you stupid Newfies know about it anyway? (after all Newfoundlanders–I detest the phrase ‘Newfie’–have only had a 500+ year history of seafaring. Yeah, what would we know?)

      As I see it that attitude exists to this day and yes, I am definitely looking at Fracking too. Once again the upper management and operations staff expect us to ‘trust them’ while they remain unmoved by a mounting body of evidence that shows the practice to be unsafe at just about every level imaginable.

  6. marcelino guerrero says:

    Nature has many profound and quick ways to humble us all. This was a moving story to remind others we are not the only masters on this earth. Unfortunately we forget these teachings as time passes, hopefully others will take your warning to heed on this day.

    • So true Marcelino–people so quickly forget or ignore the immense power that nature has, especially compared with ours. She will always prevail and we’d best keep that in mind. If only more would listen… and remember…

  7. What a tragic story. Thanks for writing it for those who had never heard about it, it must have been difficult to write for you, however valid your points are about learning from experience (tries to muffle a sarcastic snort there regarding big business learning from mistakes). How deep was the water where they were? I was wondering about the 12 anchors on the bottom. And how did they know about the lifeboat if there were no survivors – was it found drifting around or did they see it had been launched when they were doing the salvage op?

    I learned a – tiny – bit about the oil industry when I was working in health and safety. Along with mining it had one of the highest accident rates. It would though wouldn’t it?

    However sad, a very thoughtful post for Valentine’s Day, and a much more worthwhile read than some of the soppy drivel that is being posted around – which I shall be keeping well away from.

    • The majority of the Grand Banks are rather shoal. The part where the Ranger fell was around 90 m deep. It was eventually re floated and sunk in deeper water–a process that claimed two additional lives. I don’t know about the anchors but guess they were recovered. As for the observations, there were actually 2 other rigs in viewing distance (13 & 30 km away). In addition, all three rigs had their own supply ship–sturdy multipurpose vessels that, in addition to carrying piping and other supplies could handle tugging and search and rescue. The Ranger’s own supply ship was in close and the other two had been dispatched to the site at time of sinking. Forensic evidence showed the lifeboat launched with 30+ on board and a visual sighting from Ranger’s supply ship confirmed the 20+ in the water. The tragic thing is that the 190+ km/hr winds, blinding snow, 20+ metre waves and icy cold water made rescue impossible.

      • Thanks for that extra info. The one thing that came to mind was how long someone wouldn’t survive in those icy cold waters, let alone the fierce storm conditions, huge waves, snow, wind etc, well, you said it all really. Very sad. But should people’s lives be put at risk at that time of year I wonder?

  8. Mjollnir says:

    Poignant and pointed stuff. Well done Maurice.

  9. Bernice says:

    Lovely piece Maurice 🙂 thanks for writting and sharing! I was only young and sadly have no personal memories of Uncle Din other than the memories of stories told to me of how great he was ..and foolish too 🙂

  10. Incidentally, have you seen this story (probably) but it resonated with me after reading your post.


  11. Yes indeed. This post as well as the few I’ve written about the Marcellus Shale combine to show, all too clearly, how loudly the economy (and self-motivated interest) of the fossil fuel industry speaks. How unfortunate for us and for the planet. One wonders, however, how an industry with such momentum can ever be checked, slowed, or perhaps even stopped. This can only happen when such reserves become depleted … and then folks will ask why we never invested in alternative technologies. Why aren’t those folks listening now? We, as a species, are so senseless, maladapted,and not long for this world (on the geological time scale that is). Nice post … well-written food for thought. Thanks.

  12. Paul Shea says:

    Excellent writing, as always, Maurice!
    Today my little sister posted something had never seen before ; a poem written by one of the 84 men that lost their lives that terrible day. Eerie foreshadowing.


    Huge Iron Island.
    37 stories high, two city blocks square, impervious to the attacks of an indignant sea…
    Our mutton-headed people trail behind this pied-piper, bickering over the loose change falling through the holes in his pockets.
    Mother Earth created us, raised us, taught us, sheltered us and this is how we repay her.
    Beware, she shall have her revenge.

    ~ Greg Tiller~

  13. bluonthemove says:

    Great post. You are right, generally mistakes are not things that business learns from unless they are accompanied by major financial loss as with BP off the coast of Texas/New Orleans recently.

    I think there needs to be much more research into fracking/shale gas before it is undertaken on any kind of large scale, it seems to be the next big thing (even doing it in the UK) with little or no knowledge of the long term effects on the environment.

    • You are definitely right–research is the key. That seems to be most of the problem; people blindly striving ahead without regard to the normal environmental and safety safeguards. Arrogance. Maybe with the lessons that have been learned so far, enough level headed people will lend a strong voice. Just maybe; maybe that voice will be heard.

  14. nlarchaeology says:

    I remember this from my childhood. I will not forget.

  15. Tracy says:

    This is so sad and even more so because this kind of thing still happens. Mostly it does seem that these disasters could be avoided if only those ‘in charge’ would listen to the crews. One day we will realise that there is nothing so precious as human life. Perhaps when corporate manslaughter is taken more seriously those who would consider making a fast buck at huge risk to others will think again. Some risks are just not worth taking.

  16. The ocean is a fearsome monster but human greed more so.

  17. johnlmalone says:

    a very moving blog, Maurice and a fitting tribute to the 84 men who perished. I remember reading about this in a book on Waves: it was the opening and by far the most gripping chapter. The author suggested rogue waves.

    • Thanks! Yes a rogue wave likely played a part, but most of the items in the chain of events that followed could have been stopped with appropriate prior action and better-understood procedures. The rogue wave too: the porthole that got smashed (which likely started the list) should have had a metal cover deployed; it was not.

  18. SJ O'Hart says:

    Your post is the first I’ve ever heard of this tragic event. What a wonderful, and powerful, tribute to those who were lost. Thank you for posting this, and educating me.

Comments are Welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s