Monday, April 9, 2012

From The Jaws Of The Ocean

Whenever I reflect upon the various events in my life that have had a lasting effect on me, I find one particular episode standing out conspicuously from the rest. Today, it is hard to believe that a decade has passed since, because the events of that day are as vivid in my mind as they would have been had they happened yesterday.

It was a typical summer afternoon out in the wild sea. Living in the middle of the ocean, far from civilization, and so far from home that it appeared remote even in my thoughts, has been my job since I chose to be an oilfield engineer, and the sea – its waves, fishes, sea gulls, sunsets – fascinated me far less than it did when I first stepped on to a beach and had my first rendezvous with this vast watery wilderness. That day proceeded for the most part like any other that I had been seeing for the three weeks out at sea on that particular trip. The ocean was shimmering in the blinding whiteness of the high sun. The sky was an umbrella of spotless azure hugging the sea all along its unbroken horizon. I was standing on the deck of the Oceanic Explorer, a gigantic oil-exploration ship, anchored in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by a limitless expanse of water in every direction. All in all, a normal day out in the sea, and there was nothing in the air that augured the events that were to follow later in the day. A strong and constant wind was blowing squarely on my face as I leant on the railing on one side of the lower deck, and looked out into the sea for some sign of human life other than ours, but in vain. Frothy waves appeared like blisters on the glistening water here and there, charging forward with great aggression only to drown out of sight, before rising and charging again with renewed gusto. The swells under the water rose and fell in varying magnitudes, making the ship dance to their tunes. A few shoals of flying fish seemed to revel in the sparkling water as they created momentary arches over the water in their playfulness. The seagulls too seemed to be having the time of their lives as they landed on the water in their flocks, staying afloat for a while before flying off together with great purpose, only to land on the water again. The ship itself might have felt very lonely, had it been capable of any feeling at all, standing in absolute solitude in the middle of nowhere, tormented incessantly by the restless waters. The massive ship tugged hard at the anchor ropes every time a huge swell passed under it, giving it the semblance of a wild elephant struggling to get free of its tether. Nature was its usual, carefree self, totally unconcerned about the rigors and tensions of the hundred-odd crew of the ship, who had been toiling away day and night for the last couple of months in drilling a four-kilometer deep well, which was expected to produce a good amount of oil, and end the drought of success in exploration that had stretched frustratingly long. Optimism and Hope are the main drivers of human perseverance in oil exploration, and this well was no different. Every person strove with equal conviction that oil would be struck this time round and even the mere mention of the possibility of a ‘dry’ well was considered taboo.

The sprawling decks, which spanned the wide area between the rig floor and the heli-deck, and an equally expansive space between the rig floor and the living quarters, were scenes of hectic activity. Every action was being directed towards the core activity that was taking place on the rig floor, where a string of pipes were being run into the well by means of a bulky lifting device hanging from a massive block of steel – called the travelling block – which hung on steel ropes from the top of a towering mast of steel trusses. The block was moving indefatigably up and down the mast as it lowered pipe after pipe into the four-kilometer deep well. The crane and the roustabouts were busy packing up and lifting more pipes to the rig floor, even as other people were absorbed in their own duties.  The welder was totally engrossed in cutting a large plate of steel, stopping only for a moment at regular intervals to rest his eyes. The cleaners were training water jets on the deck and the pipes to clear the rust and scrap. The roughnecks were sweating it out on the rig floor as they tightened the pipes being run into the well. A solitary being, known as the derrick-man on the rig, was perched up in the dizzy height of the mast, guiding the pipes standing on the derrick to the pipe-hanging tool on the moving block. The driller was his usual belligerent self, shouting instructions to the roughnecks from inside his cabin, and the drilling supervisor, who bears the ultimate responsibility for execution of all operations as per plan, kept a close eye on the activities. I was waiting on one of the lower decks, lost in idle musings, occasionally casting an eye to the rig floor, waiting for the pipe-running to end, and my activity to start. Suddenly, a stillness descended upon the rig. Nothing, except the constant rumbling of the ship’s engines was to be heard. I glanced quickly up to the rig floor. The block had stopped. The roughnecks seemed to be in a state of panic. The crane had come to a halt. The roustabouts were all standing in the middle of the deck and looking curiously up at the rig floor. I sensed something was terribly wrong. Even as I started hurrying up the steep metal staircases to the rig floor, I heard my name being called out on the announcement system – “Production Engineer To Rig Floor Immediately”. I quickened my climb, taking two to three steps at a time, and was quite at a loss of breath by the time I entered the Driller’s cabin. The cabin was crowded with supervisors of all sorts. The Drilling supervisor, the Rig Superintendent, The Tool Pusher, The Mechanical In-Charge, The Electrical Engineer, all turned their grim faces on me as I opened the door to enter the cabin. The scene outside the cabin, on the rig floor, was one of stillness. The well mouth was cordoned off by a barrier of red tape, signaling danger to human life. The roughnecks made themselves comfortable at a safe distance, and were sitting on whatever flat surfaces they could find around them. The derrick-man had descended from his high perch, and was promptly sent off for a well-deserved cup of tea. The Drilling Supervisor was the first to speak, “We are about to shut the well in at the BOP” he said to me, and pointing gravely towards the mouth of the well, he continued, “the well is flowing”. He then pointed to the digital display panel, where many numbers were changing constantly, and put his finger on one number, which was indeed rising steadily. That number showed the volume of mud, or drilling fluid coming out of the well. The situation was indeed alarming. If the drilling fluid was coming out, there can be only one thing that was causing it to come out – gas. I knew gas could cause havoc if it reaches the surface, and for a gas bubble to rise up a hole of a few thousand meters, it takes much less time than one can imagine. The steadily rising rate that showed on the digital display required much faster action than what the Drilling Supervisor seemed to be contemplating. I asked him, with a slight undertone of concern, “why don’t you shut it in right now?”. The Supervisor shook his head. “No, let us observe it for a few minutes”. Well control is the direct responsibility of the Drilling Supervisor, and he is supposed to know best what action to take under such circumstances. However, I had an uneasy feeling that he was being far more patient than was necessary. Before I could say anything to convey my thoughts, there was a sharp cry at the door of the cabin. A person who was manning the shale shakers, through which the outcoming mud from the well is circulated back to the rig mud tanks, had come up all in a huff and said that the outflow of mud had suddenly increased, and the shakers were overflowing. We looked instantly at the display panel. Nothing seemed abnormal. “that display is wrong” shouted the shaker-man, “we are getting uncontrollable flow”. The situation inside the Driller’s cabin was instantly converted into one of absolute panic.

“CLOSE THE RAMS”, shouted the Drilling supervisor at the top of his voice, although the driller was barely a couple of feet away from him. The driller rushed to the BOP panel and pushed the button against the label “Pipe Rams”. The Pipe rams are high pressure seals designed to close around a pipe and prevent gas from coming to surface. Before the rams could close, there was a huge gush of mud through the rig floor, and instantly the glass panes of the driller’s cabin were all covered in mud. There was a dreadful sound of mud falling in lumps on the roof of the cabin for a while, and stopped. All was still. Nobody spoke a word. After a few moments, the driller carefully opened the cabin door and peered outside. The gushing of mud had stopped, which was evidence enough that the pipe rams have closed. One after the other, all the people inside the cabin were out on the floor. The scene outside was unbelievable. The rig floor looked like a mud field. The heavy handling tools near the mouth of the well had been flung about like toys. The mud spray was so powerful that even the upper heights of the mast were doused in mud. The lower decks were not spared either. The whole rig looked like it had just been retrieved from a mud hole. As shocked faces surveyed the mess, there was a sudden blasting of alarms all over the place. First, the gas alarm went off, followed in close succession by the fire alarm. In the midst of the deafening jangle, an announcement was made from the control room that there was a fire somewhere on the rig. We had to strain our ears to make out that the shakers had caught fire. A fire party was seen donning fire suits and arming themselves with water hoses and extinguishers even as other people on the rig scampered towards their muster stations near the life boats. I myself ran towards one, found myself a life-jacket and stood amongst the nervous crew members near one of the life-boats. I looked down at the sea, and somehow I felt that the waves were raging with greater fury than normal. The ship rocked with greater discomfort, and the anchor ropes looked to have reached their limits of resistance.

There was another announcement from the bridge at this point. The fire had apparently been brought under control and the alarms had been deactivated. Everybody was asked to report to the heli-deck for a combined briefing. Within minutes, everybody was assembled on the Heli-deck, and the Drilling Supervisor, along with the captain, addressed the group.

“The good news is”, started the Drilling Supervisor, “that the fire and gas hazards have been effectively dealt with”. Everybody was silent. They knew that the bad news was coming.
“The bad news” continued the Supervisor “is that the pressure under the pipe rams is building up, and…” he paused uneasily, “there seems to be a slight leakage through the rams.
“Presently the pressure is two thousand pounds, and still it is increasing. The leak has not worsened as yet, but, under the circumstances, we have decided that the ship has to be evacuated of non-essential personnel”
The Radio Operator spoke. “We have informed base, and helicopters are being arranged for the evacuation, but as it is already dark, there are doubts whether the choppers will be able to land on the rig. So…”
The Captain, who was silent thus far, interjected, “we have alerted the stand-by vessel, and it is coming alongside to pick up as many personnel as it can”
Presently, there was a call from the Driller on the rig floor. It had come to light that the leak in the rams had increased, and gas was visible at the well mouth. This complicated matters further. The Captain, the Drilling Supervisor and the Rig Superintendent had a brief closed-door meeting, and emerged out on to the heli-deck again to make an announcement. It was the Drilling Supervisor who spoke,
“after a lot of deliberation, we have finalized an emergency course of action”, he said with a grim face “we have no choice but to close the shear rams, cut the pipe in the hole, disconnect the LMRP and abandon the rig”
Everybody was silent. We all knew that the choppers cannot land on the rig in the night, especially with the sea as rough as it was. The stand-by vessel can take at the most fifty people on board. The remaining fifty will have to take the life-boats. Nobody on the rig had ever been on a life-boat, in a real situation or otherwise, and the very look of the snarling waves sent shudders through our bodies.
Anyway, the plan was put into action. The shear rams were closed. The shear rams cut the pipe in two halves, the lower half fell into the well and the upper half hung from the block. The LMRP, which is a quick-release connector that facilitates release of the casing connecting the rig floor to the BOP on the sea-bed, was activated. The LMRP, however, did not function as expected. In spite of repeated activations, the casing did not release. “The sea currents are too strong” said the driller, “the LMRP will not release since the underwater casing is in tension”
Meanwhile, the stand-by vessel, which was a medium sized supply boat with an open deck for cargo, made several brave attempts to moor alongside the rig, although it was being ruthlessly tossed about by the hungry waves, but had to eventually give up. So, the part of the plan, which envisaged transferring part of the crew to the boat, had to be abandoned. We were left with only the life-boats until some external help arrived. Everyone, including myself, was very apprehensive and nervous about getting thrown about in the wild sea in pitch darkness on one of those tiny life-boats. Even the thought was horrifying. Yet, if worse comes to worst, we knew that the life-boats were the only barriers between us and the ferocious ocean, which seemed to be frothing and fuming even more at that moment, as if sensing a kill in sight. The wind speed had picked up considerably with the onset of darkness, and it seemed very unlikely that anyone was going to leave that rig that night.
We donned our life-jackets and filed into the crammed interior of the life-boat, which had benches for seats in two rows facing each other, with a box of supplies – water, food packets etc – in small quantities. Just as the life boat was being started, an announcement by the Radio Operator spread cheer amongst the crew. There was a chopper on the way to the rig, and that it would be landing in a few minutes. The announcement was followed by loud shouts of cheer as the head-lights of a chopper flashed dimly far away in the dark sky, and steadily grew brighter and larger as it approached the rig. The chopper made a few rounds of the rig, trying to make an approach to the heli-deck, but each time it had to abort its landing as the stiff wind prevented it from maintaining stability. After several failed attempts, the chopper headed away from the rig and soon vanished out of sight. In the meantime, it was made known to everybody that one of the life-boats had become dysfunctional, as its engine would not start. The mechanic was working on it, but until it could be repaired, half of the crew had no life-boat for an escape. Meanwhile, news from the rig floor was not good. The Driller had been trying all this while to release the LMRP, but was unable to do so because of the strong water currents. The Captain announced that the tension on the anchor ropes on one side of the rig had breached the danger limit and evacuation processes needed to be expedited. If the anchor ropes were to give way, with the casing still not released, the ship would lose its balance. More than half of the crew were trembling with fear, but thankfully, did not panic. The tougher ones were putting up a brave front, but must have been quaking within as well. The Chief Officer of the rig came to the life-boat stations and personally checked the sea-worthiness of each life-jacket. This conveyed the eerie message that we might have to take to the sea without life-boats, if the situation so demanded. One look at the seething waters and the feel of the hurricane blowing on our faces was enough to send shivers down every spine at the possibility of having to jump into the sea.
Suddenly, the sound of helicopter engines filled the air. The chopper was back, and this time it had another chopper with it. The pilots seemed determined to make a successful evacuation this time round. After a lot of maneuvers and failed rounds, one of the choppers did manage to land on the heli-deck. The Radio Operator announced the passenger manifest for the first sortie. The Chopper was a small Dauphin, and the maximum it could take was nine people at a time. Anyway, the first nine people were evacuated without delay. Every person was waiting with bated breath to hear his name on the manifest, even as the second chopper made its successful descent. Everybody had a prayer on his lips as the choppers struggled hard to combat the forces that night. In the end, the prayers yielded fruit, and the choppers came in one after the other, overcame the rough conditions and transported all the people to a nearby production platform, about twenty miles away. I was among the last to land on the platform, along with the Drilling Supervisor, the Captain, The Chief Officer, the Driller, The crane operator and the Radio Operator. It was 2 a.m. in the morning when the last flight lifted off the Oceanic Explorer, and it felt a bit sad that the ship was left to fend for itself in the stormy waters, to a fate that was yet unknown.
The feel of land was never as good as it was when I touched shore early in the morning light, and daylight was never more welcome. The events of the night remain fresh in my mind till this day, coming back to me like a nightmare every now and then. I have had my brush with death, like so many others on the ship, and for nothing would I ever relive that experience, in this life, or the next.
The Oceanic was handed over to an international Blow-out control company, which spent close to six months killing the well and retrieving the pipes. Investigations into the incident continue till this day, about ten years since that fateful night, and learning points are still being compiled, in a perennial effort to make offshore oil-drilling safer than it has been in the past.

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