Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Grim Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago, on February 14, 1982, a fierce storm was heading for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, preparing to alter the lives of thousands of individuals within a few hours. The storm, with winds in excess of 70mph and waves topping 100 feet in height, was bearing down on a group of offshore oil rigs and merchant vessels that would soon be faced with a mariner’s worst nightmare.

Sometime around 7pm that Sunday evening, the world’s largest semi-submersible oil rig, the Ocean Ranger, was moored over a drill site in the Grand Banks when her Master reported an immense wave crashing over her. The Ocean Ranger was considered unsinkable to many, possibly including many among her crew of 84, 67 of whom were Canadians. As reported to the rig’s shore base in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 180 miles to the west, the wave had smashed portholes in the Ocean Ranger’s ballast control room, leading to some flooding and electrical shorts. In theory, this should have been a minor incident quickly dealt with by the crew; no one could imagine that this would lead to one of the worst maritime disasters in recent Canadian history.

The Ocean Ranger

A little after midnight, in the early hours of a storm-ravaged Monday morning, the Ocean Ranger’s situation had become perilous. The flooding in the ballast control room had led to a list in the rig, caused by short circuits in the equipment that opened sea valves in the hulls. By 1:56am on February 15, the Ocean Ranger’s list had reached the point that the crew radioed for help. The Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, heard the call: "Request assistance a.s.a.p....We are an offshore drilling platform...Winds at this time are approx....75 knots. Rig is of semisubmersible build...is listing severely 12° to 14°portside."

This would be the last transmission heard from the Ocean Ranger. With the storm still raging over the area, neither fixed wing aircraft nor helicopters could be effectively deployed to assist the crew of the rig, and any other vessels in the area were dealing with their own serious conditions. About 65 miles east of the Ocean Ranger was a Soviet freighter that might have been able to help, but the MV Mikhanik Tarasov was fighting its own life and death battle with the seas.

By 3:30am, the Ocean Ranger’s list had reached the point of no return: she was going under. Whether anyone made it to the lifeboats of not before she sank is still unknown. But at 3:38am, the gigantic platform disappeared off radar screens. Once dawn broke on that Monday morning and rescuers were finally able to arrive on the scene, the Ocean Ranger was gone, swallowed up by the North Atlantic. All that remained was some debris and overturned lifeboats.

There were no survivors.

In a sad coda to the Ocean Ranger’s demise, the Soviet freighter Mikhanik Tarasov soon radioed her own Mayday, stating she was taking on water and listing badly. Within twenty-four hours of the loss of Ocean Ranger, the freighter also succumbed to the storm, leaving only five survivors out of a crew of 37. In all, 116 men lost their lives on the North Atlantic during those terrifying days a quarter century ago.

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