According to the International Labor Organization, a person dies from a work-related accident and 153 people have a work-related accident every 15 seconds. Some jobs seem to be packed with adrenaline due to their dangerous nature. The idea of ‘dangerous’ changes with the times, and while lumberjack remains to be considered a risky profession, parole officer was listed as one of the most dangerous professions in 2015. An engineering student taking a geophysics class might not imagine his future as being packed with life threatening situations. Nonetheless, it is well-known that the oil and gas industry can be life threatening. In the following text, we present three gruesome, life-threatening accidents that took place in offshore platforms. Two of these are infamous for their death toll, while the third is presented because it happened in Mexico. 2015 has not been a lucky year for PEMEX in terms of accidents. Historically, the worst accidents in PEMEX’s activities have happened in the downstream segment, but this year has been a constant reminder of how important it is to invest in safety in spite of reduced budgets. In this post, we will review one of PEMEX’s most thrilling offshore catastrophes.
One of the best-known disasters in the oil and gas industry is the Piper Alpha incident. Built by McDermott and owned by Occidental Petroleum, this platform operated from 1975 until 1988 in the North Sea, 193 km northeast of Aberdeen. The majestic structure rested above 144 m of water and comprised four modules properly separated in order to keep the most dangerous operations far from the personnel areas. Back in the day, this platform was able to produce 317,000 b/d. The platform was doomed the day one of its modules was converted from an oil extraction to a gas extraction and treatment facility, bringing together several sensitive areas that should have not been close in the first place. On July 6, 1988, a pressure safety valve was removed as part of a maintenance operation, a component that was essential in preventing the build-up of dangerous liquid gas. Unlike the other 100 valves, this one was not put back in its place, a situation the staff from the following shift was not aware of. The exact chain of events is unknown, but it is believed that during the night shift a piece of equipment that was not fully operational was activated, resulting in a massive explosion. Within two hours, the platform was engulfed in flames. At the time of the accident, 226 people were on the platform. Many workers jumped into the sea from heights up to 20 m, spending hours in the freezing waters awaiting their rescue. By the time the rescue vehicles, including helicopters, vessels, and six NATO-owned ships, reached the place, the flames where over 100 m high and could be seen from 100 km away. In spite of the rather successful rescue operation, 167 people died. This is considered one of the most expensive accidents in modern history, as it resulted in $US3.4 billion in damages.
Another memorable accident is that of the Alexander L. Kielland semi-submersible platform back in 1980. This platform was located in the Ekofisk Field in the Norwegian portion of the North Sea where it was performing operations for Phillips Petroleum. On March 27, 1980, wind gusts of 40 knots and waves up to 12 m high were shaking the platform when all of a sudden one of the main braces supporting one of the five legs failed. Five out of six anchor cables had snapped, with the remaining cable keeping the rig from capsizing. When this finally failed, one of the legs broke, tilting the rig at a 30° angle, partially submerging the main deck and the accommodations module.
The rig had seven lifeboats with a 50-person capacity, and 20 lifeboats with a 20-person capacity. Out of the four boats that were released, three crashed against the rig’s leg due to the strong winds and waves while being lowered. A fifth boat surfaced upside down, although its passengers righted it and gathered 19 men from the water. Fifteen minutes after the first leg broke, the platform rolled over entirely. Rescue vessels from the neighboring flotel Edda rescued some survivors, while other actually swam to this platform. Of the 212 people aboard, 123 were killed, making it the worst maritime disaster in Norway since WWII. Although the most accepted version states that the leg bracing broke due to fatigue in a weld, a theory claims the rig had been deliberately sabotaged with explosives.
The Usumacinta might not be one of the most gruesome accidents in the global oil and gas industry, but it is worth mentioning, as it is one of the worst accidents that have taken place in Mexico. The Usumacinta jack-up was moved next to the Kab-101, a small-sized light-oil production platform, to perform drilling operation on the Kab 103 well. On October 23, 2007, two days after Usumacinta’s arrival, a cold front with winds exceeding 100 km/h caused this platform to move violently, since the ballast and anchor had not been properly secured. Disaster was imminent, but things took a horrifying turn when Usumacinta stroke the top of Kab-101’s valve tree, resulting in a leak of both oil and gas. PEMEX personnel could not close the valves completely, so 81 people were evacuated from Usumacinta. The harsh weather conditions were obstructing rescue operations, causing at least one lifeboat to collapse. According to PEMEX reports, 21 people died during the incident.
Containing the spills was not an easy task. On November 13, the well Kab 121 ignited during attempts to control the spill, but this was brought under control the same day. On November 20, this well ignited again and the fire was not controlled until 13 days later. The initial spill was estimated at 422 b/d of mostly light crude, of which 40% is thought to have evaporated. Chemical dispersants were used alongside sea recovery operations, with a total of 8,701 barrels recovered. However, this measure was criticized because it caused some of the oil to sink to the seabed.