Having to deal with potentially hazardous substances in some of the fiercest weather the planet has to offer has made workers in the offshore oil and gas industries an exceptionally tough breed. High rates of pay and generous shore leave have helped to ensure that there has never been a shortage of willing labor prepared to brave the elements. Although a generally good safety record has also helped, 123 North Sea workers tragically paid the ultimate price when in March 1980 their accommodation rig capsized in gale-force winds.
The Alexander Kielland was a semi-submersible rig situated in the Ekofisk oil field in the North Sea, midway between the Scottish and Norwegian main lands. It was being used as a so-called ‘flotel’: an accommodation rig for the 300 or so workers drilling on the Edda rig. The two rigs were linked by a bridge, although this was not connected at the time of the accident. In the early evening, as winds of almost 100 kph (60 mph) buffeted the rig, one of the rig’s leg braces snapped, causing the others to fail in turn and then the leg itself to break. The whole enormous 10,000 ton structure toppled over, for some 15 minutes it balanced precariously at a 35 degree angle before capsizing and turning over completely. Many of the survivors owed their escape to those crucial minutes, during which two lifeboats were successfully launched.
The rig now lay upside down in the storm-tossed seas with only its legs visible above the surface. A huge international rescue mission was immediately organized, involving ships, helicopters and diving vessels from Norway and the UK. The terrible weather made rescue efforts very difficult and some survivors had to endure an ordeal lasting many freezing hours before being picked up.
When: March 27 1980
Where: North Sea (between Scotland and Norway)
Death toll: 123 people died out of the 212 crewmen on board the rig at the time of the tragedy.
You should know: Although rumors of sabotage have continued to surround the incident, the official explanation for the disaster was metal fatigue in the leg brace.