I worked offshore for about 2 ½ years after I finished high school. It was a memorable experience, but the second week out was most notable.
I worked a shift called “seven on, seven off”, which meant we worked seven twelve hour days and were off for seven days. After I was used to the schedule, I realized it was one of the best to work. It was free room and board for half the year, so it helped with my expenses.
The first week was more of an introduction, if you consider hard work in blistering heat an introduction. My duties were to help the company men with their tasks. Since it was a high pressure gas production facility, and I was a contract roustabout, I was the “new guy” and was delegated any task that nobody else really wanted to do. Nobody was lower on the totem pole. Nobody really cared if I made it, or not.
My second week out brought the start of a weather change. Since it was past the second week of September, the approach of a cold front had brought increasing winds and seas from the southeast. Getting on the platform, which meant swinging from the “monkey ropes” that hung at the bottom catwalk, meant coordinating a swing to the platform with the waves. If you weren’t in tune, you either would swing into the platform, or find your miss meant you had to drop five feet to the deck of the crew boat. Everyone made it without a problem, even the old men, so there was nothing different about the Wednesday afternoon, which was the start of our work week.
Thursday morning brought higher winds. We worked on the various platforms, but as the day progressed, the seas became more treacherous. By evening, safety was becoming a problem. Before dark, a wire-line crew parked their jack-up barge at the west end of the main production platform. They planned to wait out the weather, before they tried to negotiate the jetties. They had a sturdy craft and the jack-up legs kept the craft above the waves.
The main platform was actually two platforms bridged by a catwalk that was about one hundred feet long. The production platform, which was full of high pressure production vessels and pipes, was on the west end of the facility. The living quarters, which were above a work shop, water tank and sewer plant, were on the east end of the facility. All of the daily two hundred million cubic feet of gas passed into a pipe header on the production platform. The main pipeline was eighteen inches in diameter and flowed at a pressure of twelve hundred pounds per square inch. An eight inch pipe carried the condensate liquid. It was called distillate, and was as flammable as gasoline.
Friday morning was a typical morning. The night-man woke everyone at 5:00 am in the usual manner, which was opening the door, turning on the lights and announcing: “Boys, it’s time to wake up.” The man in the lower bunk lit a cigarette, which meant I bailed out of bed and went for breakfast. After going to the restroom, I went downstairs.
Two strangers sat at the table. I couldn’t place them, but the field superintendent was shooting the breeze, while they drank coffee. I quietly listened to the conversation and finally picked up who they were and why they were there.
They were the crew of the wire line barge. During the night, a leg on their jack-up barge had given away and they had been dumped into the Gulf. They both still had the amazed look of somebody that cheated death. They had fought their way in pitch darkness until they made it out of the sinking barge. They had scaled barnacle covered ladders in their skivvies to find safety. The night man had been more than startled when he found them; he was still a little nervous from the experience. The two men left on the first helicopter out.
Since it was too rough to leave the main platform, we repaired controls, cleaned things up and discussed the barge that was sitting on the bottom. Engineers said there was nothing to worry about. The pipelines were over six feet below the seabed. Everything was safe. The mostly sunken barge rocked in the waves.
That evening, after supper, the crew settled into their usual habits. Some watched television, others read, and everyone else was playing poker. I had played the week before and had beginner’s luck. I was sitting in again, nervous, since my luck wasn’t nearly as good. I was down about five dollars, which was more than I wanted to lose.
The platform shook as if something big had bumped into the legs. One of the crew asked if someone had called the big work boat. As everyone looked at each other, the platform shook again. This time the sky outside the windows turned a brilliant orange. As we all looked out the windows, we realized the entire production facility was engulfed in flames. The barge had worked into the bottom and ruptured the pipelines.
The field superintendent hit the alarm and started calling for boats. Everyone else started calling for evacuation. I went for my life jacket and wondered what was next.
I couldn’t find my life jacket. I went to my work locker, it wasn’t there. I ran upstairs to my room locker and it wasn’t there either. I was starting to panic, so I ran downstairs to look again. It was in my work locker behind my rain suit. I had been in too much of a hurry to look closely.
Now I was really worried. I didn’t see anyone and knew I had been left. I hurried out, and started down the catwalk to the bottom landing. Nobody was there. I looked for the boat, while I glanced at the burning platform only a hundred feet away. Somebody was coming down the stairs. I was first. I felt foolish, and relieved. Soon the entire crew was heading to the landing.
I now had time to observe the fire. Flames were rising around 40 feet above the deck, which was 40 feet above the water. The strong southeast wind was keeping them away, but the burning condensate seemed to be drifting closer to the living quarters. The heat was oppressive, even though the wind and temperature should have been uncomfortably cool.
The large workboat was approaching. An occasional large wave would break high enough to flood seawater over our feet. It was time to leave and it didn’t look like it would be easy. The right size wave could wash someone into the water, where the best of situations would only end with terrible injuries from being banged into the substructure of the platform. The worst situation would have been if we couldn’t pull them from the water before they were swept past the platform. Death awaited anyone that was that unfortunate. The fire in the water wasn’t that far from the edge of the platform.
As the large boat swung around, I could see the skipper at the back controls. As he backed, the waves would bring the stern high enough to see the propellers. As they broke the water, the engines would race. He carefully positioned the boat so we could climb aboard. We worked as a team. Between the monkey ropes, and mad scrambling, everyone was pulled on board. The skipper quickly pulled away from the platform. We were safe.
We spent almost the rest of the night traveling between the platforms and closing valves. I was too new to be involved with this task, so I just helped the crew on and off the platforms or stared at the burning production platform in the distance. The flames were slowly receding. By 1:00 am they were out.
One of the crew said we were headed back to the living quarters. I must have looked like I didn’t believe what he said. He said I could go home, but if I did, I couldn’t come back. I weighed the options and decided to stay. If they weren’t afraid, then I wouldn’t be either, even if I was. I kept watching the platform as we returned. The generators were still supplying power, and lights. The gas stored in the pipes was enough to run for weeks.
We arrived and went to check the damage. All that could be done was to make sure all supply valves were closed and that nothing was still burning. It was time to call it a day. I showered and went to bed to catch what little sleep was available.
I didn’t sleep well. I dreamed there was no roof to the living quarters. It was though I was sleeping in a large open building in the middle of the Gulf. The night man came in a 5:00 am and woke us in the usual manner.
I spent the day cleaning the decks. The high pressure gas kept a continuous supply of water on the platform. Instead of warping steel, the temperature had only risen to the boiling point of water, which left a bed of shrimp and fish cooked to perfection. We shoveled them into the Gulf with tons of sand. The charred hull of the barge rocked in the waves.
Company officials visited during the day. The pilots would complain since there was only room for one helicopter on the heliport. Instead of sitting, drinking coffee and reading the paper, they had to play helicopter musical chairs. Those with more important officials had more time to sit.
We were told how lucky we were (we were) and how well we had done (Yep, but we were exhausted). I found no comfort. In a way, I was insulted; they had no idea and were only offering platitudes.
By evening, a large derrick barge was anchored off the end of the platform. The divers started working to prepare for the lift to remove the barge. I watched until dark. I was tired and knew tomorrow would be close to business as usual.
I have a lot of memories of my time offshore, but few as vivid as my second week. I consider it my baptism to manhood. Boyhood was gone and I had weathered a disaster. In a way, my life had just started.