“I vividly remember the blizzard the night the Ocean Ranger sank, said Bevin LeDrew. It was a blinding snowstorm with very high winds in the middle of February. I lived in Torbay, just outside the capital of St. John’s, and we had just come back from a weekend curling tournament, my friend and I and our spouses, and it was a very rough day to try and get back home. My friend was a helicopter pilot, and as soon as he got in the door, he got called out to sea in response to the news that the Ocean Ranger had sunk. Our hearts sank with it.”
At the time Bevin LeDrew didn’t realize that some of the most important work he would ever do, would spud from such a tragedy.
On the night of February 14th, 1982, 84 souls were lost at sea. The killer: A storm linked to Atlantic cyclone winds and waves, a drilling rig that was simply not up to the task of handling the hostile environment of the offshore. Human error and a lack of safety, search and rescue operations all had a hand to play. Some have called it the ‘perfect storm’. Others the ‘royal flush’ but whatever it is called the fact remains it was a cascading series of events that led to the death of 84 of our people.
Mayday was the call at 00:52 a.m. February 15th, as the Ocean Ranger listed and was in imminent danger in the dead of night. At 1:30 am Newfoundland local time, the Ocean Ranger transmitted it’s very last message. “There will be no further radio communication from the ocean ranger, we are going to lifeboat stations”. 90 minutes later she sank. It is estimated that by 2:30 local time, the Ocean Rangers crew had frozen and drowned. 22 bodies were recovered and autopsies confirmed this to be the fatal reality of the crew. Every single person died. 46 Mobil members and 38 independent contractors working on the Hibernia oil field on the Ocean Ranger perished that unforgiving night.
This unspeakable tragedy gave way to what would become one of the most important safety regimes on the planet, implemented offshore Newfoundland. To assess what happened and where things had to improve.
The Canadian Royal Commission spent two years looking into the domino effect that led to a tragedy of unprecedented proportion offshore east coast Canada. The findings clearly showed that the crew was not adequately trained, safety equipment was inadequate, there was a lack of safety protocols and the platform itself had flaws particularly in the ballast control room. As well inspections and regulations were ineffective for such a hostile environment. The commission’s recommendations included an ever improving safety regime that made safety the number one priority offshore. The culture we have today exists because of the Ocean Ranger. People are safer today because of the Ocean Ranger.
Bevin says, “I was responsible for a team working on Part Two of the Ocean Ranger report – Improving Safety Offshore. We had a team of managers who organized consultative committees addressing a range of topics. In total, there were hundreds of people who worked on this initiative. People from all walks of life; operational specialists, search and rescue, emergency response, weather forecasting, loss investigation, training for emergency response, regulatory regimes and environmental affairs. We worked together to; firstly inquire into the loss, and secondly find ways to improve the offshore safety environment. As a result of our work, the findings of the commission were submitted in a report to the Prime Minister of Canada, then Joe Clark as well as the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was at that time that the two governments formed the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board which jointly govern the region to this day.”
Bevin concludes that “The industry underestimated the severity of the storm and the hostile environment we were operating in. A hostile environment is one where the variability of operating conditions can pose a high stress on people and equipment operating in that environment. Our offshore heavy sea state and high winds were well known, but perhaps not adequately documented, hence understanding and designing for those conditions were some of the key challenges we had in the early days. While we had been active offshore for centuries there was not a lot of data available as input to the design and operation of mobile offshore drilling units. The industry underestimated the severity of the environment, and in combination with a series of other factors, these led to the cascading series of failures that resulted in this tragic loss of life.”
Bevin recalls, “Much of the work we did, was to look at our ability to measure and forecast weather conditions. We looked at helicopter transport over long distances and the response capability of search and rescue resources in the event of a failure. Safety training and the design of safety systems and regulations around safety were among our top priorities. The safety objective is clearly zero incidence and that means continuously seeking to improve. There is no sitting on laurels thinking we have found all the answers and solutions. It’s an ever improving process.”
Today offshore safety has never been stronger, in large part due to fatal tragedies like the Deep Horizon environmental disaster and the Ocean Ranger tragedy. Bevin says, “My fear these days about reduced diligence has to do with political interference that has resulted in the appointment of unqualified people to board positions, people who often have no experience with the core business of offshore operations and then become part of the Canada- Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. There is now a stated preference by the Federal Government to turn environmental assessment responsibility over to Ottawa. It was a long fight to house the Board in Newfoundland and it will truly be a retrogressive step to turn environmental responsibilities over to an agency that isn’t located here and has little if any knowledge or experience in offshore environmental and safety regimes in this region. That may result in future tragedy and people need to see that a lack of experience is a direct correlation to the possibility of accidents or fatalities.”
Decades after the Ocean Ranger Report was published, Bevin was given the honour of being recognized for his work on the Ocean Ranger. With an unparalleled commitment and an extensive work ethic on the Ocean Ranger inquiry, Bevin LeDrew from Newfoundland, Canada was inducted into the Offshore Energy Centre Hall of Fame on September 23, 2017.
In the warm air of a typical Houston night, industry gathered in tuxedos and gowns to recognize and celebrate the great minds that came together to set the foundation for the safe environment we now have. Bevin says, “The award was graciously received by Dr Derrick Muggeridge and myself. We had our photographs taken and the entire event was very impressive. I’m at the end of my career, so its kind of nice to be told in a formal way that the work that was carried out made a positive contribution. A lot of people involved with the Ocean Ranger have passed now and I think it’s important to recognize their contribution. We had a total staff of about fifty people and a network of consultants and a lot of industry people and government people who volunteered their time to make the offshore industry safe. There was a huge network and we should recognize their work on the Ocean Ranger Royal Commission. The work we did then lay the foundation of where we are today. I’m very proud of that”.
Let the Ocean Ranger remind us that above all, we are never 100% guaranteed to be safe and that safety is an ongoing constant state of improvement. Those of us who reside in this province know that our offshore is a mighty sea with unforgiving forces. We understand the need to constantly improve and the importance of experience and collaboration.
Moving forward let’s keep that at the forefront of our minds for the safety of our people working offshore now, and for the safety of our kids tomorrow.
For those of us who make a living at sea, safety is not a process to comply with… it is the foundation that we live by.
POEM: The Ocean Ranger – By Tina Olivero
try me, try me, the waves did tout
try my winds against your doubt
take a chance and find the way
could you harness me today
plan and plot the offshore castle
kings and queens of oilers facile
feed the energy appetite
work so hard, in the dead of night
but the sea she said it loud and clear
I am queen and ye shall fall in fear
and yet they built and made the Ranger
blind to see the imminent danger
we will concur all with the biggest and best
a rig to withstand the ocean’s unrest
but February 15 the night we are damned
broke the wall of silence between ocean and man
the Ranger sunk to the bottom of the sea
84 lives gone that belonged to you and to me
events that we never ever predicted
the ocean she scorned and man was evicted
the people were angry, and the hearts were broken
the families left with a payment of a token
the fingers to point and the people to hate
of watery graves left the shadows of fate
and so they moved on with new safety regimes
the problems were analyzed there at the scene
the systems in place to fix all of the wrong
nothing but silence between the notes of this song
the Hibernia field, it flourished at last
it’s foundation built on the pains of the past
the lives carved out in black history
gave way to the new, the prosperity
who is to say that it was right or was wrong
we paid the price with the lives of the strong
should we be shamed or should we stand tall
for it is the progress of man that takes the last call
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