Some of the eyewitnesses to the fire and the capsule accident have recalled the experience, including safety supervisor Egil Berle:
I remember that, after I’d got the supervisor job, a fire broke out on 2/4 A because a 10-inch riser had rusted and broken off just above the waterline.
The whole platform became wreathed in fire and smoke. Those of us who were standing at the Ekofisk Complex, several kilometres away, thought nobody could survive. We actually saw the lifeboats burning, and they fell into the sea, of course.
I then talked to my boss and said that we must get over there to see whether people had got away. We saw that one of the lifeboats – what we called a pickup boat, an open lifeboat, a Billingstad boat, certified for 51 people – had reached the water.
The weather was fantastic, of course, clear and windless. It later transpired that everyone had escaped but that one of the rescue capsules – the one nearest the drilling rig – had been incorrectly released, so that only two of the five people on board survived. Both broke their backs, but one recovered sufficiently that he was able to return to work after a few years.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Egil Berle interviewed by Kristin Øye Gjerde, 20 June 2003.
Teddy Broadhurst was glad he had not been on board when the fire broke out:
I was permanently employed there as an operator, and had just flown home the same day. Three died in the accident. Four men were in a Whittaker survival capsule, and the fifth man to enter pulled out the safety pin so that lowering could begin.
Just as he pulled out the pin, the capsule dropped. The man concerned suffered great psychological problems, thinking he had caused the accident. But it happened because one of the other four pulled on the lever to release the hook inside the capsule which attached it to the lowering wire. That was why it fell, and hit the sea with huge force.
Such Whittaker capsules were used as survival vessels on Ekofisk in the early years. The lifeboats came later. We had constant drills, but didn’t actually launch them to the sea that often.
Being inside one on the water was not exactly the best experience. Nor were they comfortable while being lowered, because they spun a lot. People became seasick before reaching the sea. But we did launch them quite often, particularly when the weather was fine.
These five were undoubtedly panicking. Another distinctive aspect was that Ekofisk Alpha had 62-63 people on board and the capsule should not have descended with so few on board. They should have waited.
There were three survival capsules in all. Two burnt up, and one fell. That left almost 60 people on a burning platform with only one means left of getting down.
That was an open pickup boat which didn’t really have space for 60. But everyone got on board and they lowered it to the sea. The last people climbed down rope ladders.
The weather was fortunately fantastic, because the boat only had a few centimetres of freeboard. But everything went well for those on board.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Teddy Broadhurst interviewed by Kristin Øye Gjerde, 29 November 2002.
Asbjørn Stensen was at work on Ekofisk when the Alpha platform experienced the explosion and fire, and helped to receive the three dead.
“That’s something you don’t forget, when they’re hoisted up by crane, placed on the helideck and looked after up there while awaiting transport to land,” he has said.
“I remember I flew out on the same helicopter as some of them. I didn’t know them, but I had seen them before.”
Egil Berle has reported that people went on board Alpha while the fire still burning to search for possible survivors. It got so hot in the accommodation that hard hats had melted down the wall:
I remember a wall-mounted phone in the galley. It was so hot I couldn’t breath there. You simply had to take a deep breath, run in, look around and then run back out. I then saw the telephone collapse from the heat. We had to withdraw.
The smoke began to increase, and we wanted to find its source. I had a walkie-talkie with me, and we were called back in again. The helicopter had had enough. If we wanted to get away, we had to come up right away. The helicopter couldn’t land because the helideck was destroyed. So we got out of it. And we put [standby ship] Seaway Falcon to work in an effort to extinguish the fire.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Egil Berle interviewed by Kristin Øye Gjerde, 20 June 2003.
Erling Ballstad reports that the fire was caused by corrosion in one of the platform’s two risers used for transferring production to the FTP field terminal platform via a 10-inch test line.
The hot crude inside and the salt water externally in the splash zone at the sea surface had caused the pipe to rust away so quickly that it broke and the oil and gas inside caught fire.
It developed into a fairly powerful blaze because the pressure in the flowline emerged beneath the platform, so everything looked as if it was engulfed in flames. The flowline vibrated, Ballstad recalls:
This fire taught Phillips a lesson. Risers and everything else were inspected in a completely different way afterwards. Nobody had expected corrosion to act so quickly.
Today’s risers are made of a completely different material, and checked very differently. So this was quite simply a lack of experience, a problem which hadn’t been foreseen.
The well was closed immediately. We had an emergency shutdown system, so most of the volume which escaped was backflow in the pipeline.
We ran production then at just over 1 000 pounds per square inch, so the pressure was pretty high, and the amount of energy is substantial when you get a mix of oil and gas in such pipes flowing back. So most of the energy which hit Alpha was in the pipeline, because the wells were shut down.
Ballstad was on the platform the day after the accident:
I’d been there earlier, so I was picked out to take part, and spent a couple of days down there together with the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) and the police to show them what things looked like.
And it’s undoubtedly like Asbjørn says – such things can’t be forgotten. When you look at the result, how this can happen, you carry it with you because it should never happen again. But we brought Alpha back on stream and it’s still producing. So the clean-up job was pretty good.
We had a standby ship called Seaway Falcon which had some pretty good water monitors. They sprayed the whole generator, switchboard room and everything. The wall panels curled like paper around the supports and those on the lee side blew overboard, so the water could be sprayed right through the platform.
Removing all the scrap afterwards was a fairly big job. The platform was restored and washed down. We had to desalinate the electrical systems, so it was pretty extensive. After a number of months it was back on stream.
When Broadhurst heard about the accident on the radio, his first thought was for the well he had been working on and how it had coped with the fire.
A special feature of the accident was that the accommodation suffered such extreme damage because Seaway Falcon sprayed water over it with great force. When we returned on board, there was nowhere for us to stay.
Portable cabins were installed on the pipe deck, and we lived in these temporary quarters for quite a long time. To begin with, we were there only during the day and shuttled back and forth to Ekofisk 2/4 D. It was mid-winter with a lot of bad weather, but we eventually moved into the portable units.
We were in these cabins on Christmas Eve 1975. They had no shower or washing facilities, but a separate shower cabin was installed. We scurried through the snow between our sleeping quarters and the shower and WC unit.
I don’t remember it as grim. The atmosphere was fantastic. That was particularly because of what the catering folk accomplished. They provided a Christmas tree and lots of decorations, and we got very good food in these wretched little temporary units. It was actually a fine time. When the accommodation was ready, we moved in again and drilling could resume.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Teddy Broadhurst interviewed by Kristin Øye Gjerde, 29 November 2002.
According to Berle, the accident revealed a lack of knowledge about how to unhook a lifeboat on the sea.
A rule was introduced that nobody could spend the night on Ekofisk without having received a safety briefing which included instructions on using a lifeboat and so forth.
Among other preventive measures, mention could be made of monitoring piping systems. That applied to both the NPD and classification society Det Norske Veritas.
We used the latter to conduct checks of similar risers, not least in the splash zone where tidal movements and waves lap against these pipes. The risers themselves were very well protected. A thick external layer of epoxy was covered in turn by deep coating of concrete.
But these defences could be damaged. The risers were on the outside of the platform, and supply ships and the like laying alongside to deliver equipment and stores could bang into them so that the concrete began to crack and admit water. These splash zones were stripped down and the steel thickness measured.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Egil Berle interviewed by Kristin Øye Gjerde, 20 June 2003.
Official opening of the Teesside terminalPhillips head office moves to Tananger