Ray Hawco was in line on Feb. 14, 1982, to board what turned out to be the last helicopter headed for the doomed Ocean Ranger drilling rig off Newfoundland.
Seventeen passengers waited for 16 seats that day, he said on the eve of the 30th anniversary Wednesday of Canada's worst offshore oil disaster.
The loss of the entire 84-man crew in a fierce overnight storm sent Newfoundland into a state of shock and grief that was felt across Canada, the southern United States and as far away as Britain.
Husbands, fathers and sons never came home.
At the airport on the morning before the Ocean Ranger went down, Mr. Hawco said the foreman of a three-man welding team was eager to get to the massive rig about 300 kilometres east of St. John's.
“He was quite insistent that if all three of them couldn't go, then none of them were going to go.”
In what he thought was a kind gesture, Mr. Hawco gave up his seat for the welders and planned to take a later flight. “It was the last trip out,” said the former public relations director for the provincial petroleum directorate.
That twist of fate “was a source of torment” that Mr. Hawco still thinks about, he said.
He wondered that night what it was like on the rig as a ferocious blizzard with hurricane-force winds whipped up waves the size of five-storey buildings.
A royal commission report would later blame a chain of events that sunk the Ocean Ranger. A rush of sea water through a glass portlight at about 7:45 that night soaked an electrical panel, shorting out controls for ballast gauges and pumps.
If the portlight's inner metal cover or “deadlight” had been lowered and secured, the entire catastrophe might have been avoided. But there were no standing orders for deadlight use during storms, said the report.
When power was restored hours later, damaged switches opened the wrong ballast valves, which affected balance. Poorly trained workers didn't help a swiftly deteriorating situation as the rig suddenly began to tilt.
A call for help was issued just after 1 a.m. The last communication from the Ocean Ranger at 1:30 a.m. said crew were going to lifeboat stations.
The royal commission report indicates the men, some of them lightly dressed, evacuated the rig in the next half hour or so with the storm still raging. Even in good weather, it would have taken more than an hour for rescue helicopters to reach them.
Nearby supply vessels that arrived to help were ill-equipped to save men from the water. A single lifeboat alongside one of the ships capsized at 2:38 a.m., says the royal commission report.
There were no survival suits on the rig – regulations didn't require them – and access to lifeboats was inadequate, the report found.
Of the 84 crew who died, 69 were Canadians including 56 Newfoundlanders. Other victims hailed from Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and England.
At about 5 a.m. on Feb. 15, Mr. Hawco got a call from his boss. He was soon at the petroleum directorate in St. John's to co-ordinate a grim response. “We knew the rig was gone,” he said. Hope for survivors soon faded as people struggled to comprehend that the Ocean Ranger, hyped as a marvel of modern engineering, had failed.
The semi-submersible drilling rig floated on two 122-metre long pontoons and had a deck the size of two football fields. Owned by the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company of New Orleans and leased by Mobil Oil, it was the largest platform of its kind and the pride of the industry.
Mr. Hawco said the province never contemplated an outright failure.
“The contingency plan never anticipated that there would be such a thing as a total loss of everybody onboard.”
Brian Murphy, an offshore worker for the last decade, is the local union president for about 700 workers at the Terra Nova and Hibernia production sites.
His brother-in-law, Douglas Putt, was one of the welders who caught that last chopper flight to the Ocean Ranger. It was a coincidence that Mr. Putt, a married father of three young children, was even heading to the rig, Mr. Murphy said. He had taken the two-week welding job to offset a temporary layoff in St. John's.
Mr. Murphy remembered how he and his wife spent a sleepless night as news of the sinking came in. “I'm sure that scene was replayed by lots of people all over the island.”
Mr. Murphy said stories soon came out of how workers on the rig dubbed it “Ocean Danger.”
“Safety wasn't what it is today.”
Frank Palmer was just 15 when his father, George, died on the Ocean Ranger. He had started in laundry and worked his way up to various jobs on the rig's sprawling deck. “There wasn't a lot of training back then. If you kind of hung around long enough and saw what the other guys would do, they'd give you a chance at doing another job.”
Mr. Palmer recalled how his dad loved to watch him play hockey, soccer and basketball, and how fast he grew up after his death. Of the 22 bodies recovered from the Ocean Ranger, his father's was not among them. “There's not a cemetery. There's not a headstone.” Instead, Mr. Palmer takes his own two children once a year to a stone memorial at the provincial legislature, telling them: “This is Poppy's grave.”
Family and friends of the victims will also gather at St. Pius X Church on Wednesday in St. John's as they do each year to remember the men who died.
Max Ruelokke, now chairman of the federal-provincial board that regulates oil activity off Newfoundland, has rarely missed the memorial service over the past three decades.
He was a partner and manager of a commercial dive company working on the Ocean Ranger when it went down, killing five of his workers.
The memory of those who perished helps drive ongoing efforts to improve offshore safety, Mr. Ruelokke said.
“There are just so many things that have changed since that time.”
For Mr. Hawco, the Ocean Ranger carries an enduring lesson: “No matter what technology we have, it's not going to overcome nature.”
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