Over the years, we have gotten used to seeing offshore drilling rigs in the oceans surrounding our country, and other countries too, I’m sure. Generally, these rigs are safe places to work, but it’s hard to guarantee safety in some of the fierce storms that occur around the globe. Ocean Ranger was a semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit that was located 166 miles east of Saint John’s, Newfoundland. Ocean Ranger was designed and owned by Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company Inc (ODECO) of New Orleans. Ocean Ranger was actually a self-propelled large semi-submersible vessel, designed with a drilling facility and living quarters. It was capable of operation beneath 1,500 feet of ocean water and could drill to a maximum depth of 25,000 feet. At the time of its launch, it was described by ODECO as the world’s largest semi-submersible oil rig to date.
Ocean Ranger was constructed for ODECO in 1976 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Hiroshima, Japan. It was 396 feet long, 262 feet wide, and 337 feet high. It had twelve 45,000-pound anchors. The weight was 25,000 tons. It was floating on two 400-foot-long pontoons that rested 79 feet below the surface. It was massive and very impressive, and it was approved for “unrestricted ocean operations.” Prior to moving to the Grand Banks area in November 1980, it had operated off the coasts of Alaska, New Jersey and Ireland.
On November 26, 1981, Ocean Ranger commenced drilling well J-34, its third well in the Hibernia Oil Field. Ocean Ranger was still working on this well in February 1982 when the incident occurred. Ocean Ranger was designed to withstand extremely harsh conditions at sea, including 100-knot winds and 110-foot waves, but the storm off of Canada on February 14, 1982, would prove to be too much for it. Two other semi-submersible platforms were drilling nearby Ocean Ranger on that fateful day. Sedco 706 was 8.5 miles NNE, and Zapata Ugland was 19.2 miles N of Ocean Ranger. On February 14, 1982, the platforms received reports of an approaching storm linked to a major Atlantic cyclone from NORDCO Ltd, the company responsible for issuing offshore weather forecasts. There were protocols in place, and the crew began preparing for bad weather. They began hanging-off the drill pipe at the sub-sea wellhead and disconnecting the riser from the sub-sea blowout preventer. They worked hard, but due to surface difficulties and the speed at which the storm developed, the crew of Ocean Ranger were forced to shear the drill pipe after hanging-off, after which they disconnected the riser in the early evening.
A Mayday call was sent out from Ocean Ranger at 12:52am local time, on February 15th, noting a severe list to the port side of the rig and requesting immediate assistance. This was the first communication from Ocean Ranger identifying a major problem. The standby vessel, the M/V Sea-forth Highlander, was requested to come in close, because countermeasures against the 10–15-degree list weren’t working. The onshore MOCAN supervisor was notified of the situation, and the Canadian Forces and Mobil-operated helicopters were alerted just after 1:00 local time. The M/V Boltentor and the M/V Nordertor, the standby boats of Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland respectively, were also dispatched to Ocean Ranger to provide assistance. Everything happened so fast, and at 1:30am local time, Ocean Ranger transmitted its last message: “There will be no further radio communications from Ocean Ranger. We are going to lifeboat stations.” Shortly thereafter, in the middle of the night and in the midst of that severe winter storm, the crew abandoned the platform. The platform remained afloat for another ninety minutes, sinking between 3:07am and 3:13am local time. All of Ocean Ranger sank beneath the Atlantic and by the next morning only a few buoys remained. Her entire crew of 84 workers…46 Mobil employees and 38 contractors from various service companies…were killed. There was evidence on at least one lifeboat launched with about 36 people onboard, but they didn’t survive either. Over the next week, 22 bodies were recovered from the North Atlantic. Autopsies indicated that those men had died as a result of drowning while in a hypothermic state.
Following the horrific attacks on our country on September 11, 2001, all planes were told to land at the nearest possible airport immediately. Before long, there were no planes in United States airspace, other than military planes. The feeling was an eerie one. Maybe other people considered the international flights, but for some odd reason, I did not until I read a book called, “When The World Came To Town.” When the United States closed its airspace that day, it left literally thousands of people out over the oceans with nowhere to go…almost. Those that had not passed the point of no return, most likely turned around, but there were many planes that had to go on. Nevertheless, they could not land in the United States, so our neighbors in Canada came to the rescue.
There were only a couple of places that planes en route to the east coast of the United States could land. One of them was Gander, Newfoundland…a small town of 9,561 people in 2001…and nearby communities like Gambo, Lewisporte, Appleton and Norris Arm. When the US airports shut down, it left 38 planes and 6,500 people who were heading west over the Atlantic, with very few options. Enter Gander, Newfoundland. Gander airport received those 38 planes, and opened everything in their town to those 6,500 people and a couple of dogs. The passengers were mostly in shock…both because of what had just happened, and because all the people of Gander simply dropped everything to personally take care of the stunned passengers.
At the time, the school bus drivers were on strike. As if they were one person, they all laid down their picket signs and went to drive their unexpected guests around…not just from the airport, but anywhere they needed or wanted to go. Pharmacists filled prescriptions for free. Shop owners declined payment for goods sold to the passengers. The arena at the Gander Community Centre became a giant walk-in fridge for food donations. The people brought their best dishes…comfort food for the passengers, all of whom were feeling, like every United States citizen was feeling…nauseous, anxious, and scared. If people began to cry, someone was there to comfort them and allow them to talk it out. People opened their homes, allowing people to stay with them, and others to shower in their homes. Homes were not locked. They were opened to the people from the planes…at all hours. If people just needed to get out of the community center, someone took them wherever they wanted to go…even just for a drive.
The tarmac at Gander International Airport quickly became a parking lot. There were planes everywhere. I don’t think a plane could take off, if they wanted to, but then, nobody was really going anywhere. The United States was in a “holding pattern,” and for Gander, the same applied, to a degree. They were busy helping their unexpected guests to feel more comfortable, and less anxious, if that was possible. Nevertheless, the passengers were not bored. The townspeople entertained them with music, tours, a church service, and even a birthday party for a passenger with a birthday. The townspeople took the passengers to Walmart to get them the clothing and other necessities they had to leave in the cargo hold of the plane. Whatever they wanted or needed, they were supplied with. The people of Gander did it all, and asked for nothing in return. All that is great, but the truly wonderful thing that the people of Gander, Gambo, Lewisporte, Appleton and Norris Arm did for the stranded passengers, was to offer friendship…a friendship that has endured through the 19 years since that fateful day.