Disasters: Wreck of the Ocean Ranger

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A U.S. oil rig, a Soviet freighter and 116 lives are lost at sea

The call for help that flashed into the Canadian Armed Forces Search and Rescue Coordination Center in Halifax, N.S., at 1:56 a.m. carried an unmistakable note of desperation: "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."

Those were the last words heard from the Ocean Ranger. By the time the first rescue aircraft were able to reach the site of the rig, located in the potentially rich Hibernia oilfield 180 miles east of St. John's, Nfld., it was almost dawn. All that could be seen in the roiling waves were overturned lifeboats, several bodies and bits of debris.

As rescue ships fought heavy seas and 70-m.p.h. winds to continue the search for survivors of the Ocean Ranger's 84-man crew, which included at least 14 Americans, a Soviet freighter 65 miles east of the rig radioed that it was taking on water and listing badly. Before dawn Tuesday, the 4,262-ton Mikhanik Tarasov—bound from the St. Lawrence River port of Trois Rivières to Leningrad with a load of newsprint—slipped beneath the waves, taking all but five of its 37-man crew to their deaths. By week's end 40 bodies had been recovered from both vessels, and all aboard the Ocean Ranger were presumed dead.

Built in Japan in 1976 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., the $120 million Ocean Ranger was the largest semisubmersible oil rig in operation, 396 ft. long, 262 ft. wide and 337 ft. high, with twelve 45,000-lb. anchors. The sinking of the rig was a tragic reminder that even though they are designed to ride out the most severe storms—110-ft. waves and 115-m.p.h. winds in the case of the Ocean Ranger—offshore drilling platforms are not the safest of workplaces. Since 1976, when a rig collapsed during a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 13, more than 200 people have died in sinkings of drilling platforms.

In the wake of the Ocean —S Ranger disaster, former crew members charged that safety precautions aboard the rig were inadequate and that some crew members were poorly trained. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian government began investigations to examine these questions, and also the design and seaworthiness of the rig. Owned by the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Co. of New Orleans and leased by Mobil Oil Canada Ltd., the Ocean Ranger had not been inspected in two years, and its U.S. Coast Guard certificate of inspection had expired on Dec. 27. Two Coast Guard officers were on their way from Providence to recertify the rig when last week's storm hit. Only nine days before the accident, an abandon-ship alarm was sounded when a valve for one of the Ocean Ranger's 16 ballast tanks was inadvertently opened by a crew member and the rig developed a 5° list.

Mobil officials say the alarm incident was a result of "human error" and was "totally unrelated" to the tragic events of last week. Mobil has suspended all drilling operations off Newfoundland and is calling in its two other rigs in the area, the Sedco 706 and the Zapata Ugland, for inspection as a "precautionary measure."