2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the Ocean Ranger sinking, a span of time that had only deepened the sense of loss, felt by all. I revisit the words I wrote some time ago about covering the tragedy, slightly edited to reflect the passage of time. (NTV’s Glen Carter)
I was watching television when the telephone rang. It was Sunday night, I was tired, the sitcom was boring, and the last thing I’d expected or wanted was a phone call about work.
I was 25, a rookie television reporter with NTV and I was about to be thrust into one of the most tragic events in Canadian maritime history.
The caller on the phone that night had something very important to tell me — something scary that had happened on the tail end of his two weeks offshore.
Sometimes news comes to you that way — tips and documents in brown paper envelopes. Sometimes it’s a voice at the other end of the telephone. Someone who doesn’t want their name used, but who wants to get a story out there.
An Anonymous Caller
It was no mystery to me how the caller knew where to find me. I won’t say why. He wanted anonymity then. It seems appropriate, even now.
Anyway, I settled in and listened. What the caller had to say was astounding. Between held breaths I peppered him with the questions that needed to be asked — wrote furiously on a paper napkin until I had enough information. Then I hung up.
It was a huge story, and it did need to be investigated. I decided I’d begin my work first thing in the morning Monday. I’d need a couple of days to flush it out, and then run the piece on the six o’clock show — maybe Wednesday or Thursday of that week.
My news director would make the final call on that. It was exactly eight days before the Ocean Ranger oil rig sank and 84 men were lost at sea.
The facts that surround the sinking of the Ocean Ranger are seared into the collective consciousness of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. A fierce North Atlantic storm battered the rig for hours before a rogue wave smashed through a port hole in one of the rig’s legs, soaking the ballast control system. From that point on the rig was doomed. A list developed and technicians who thought they were fixing the problem, actually made it worse.
The radio communications between the rig and Mobil Oil’s St. John’s base were ominous. Mobil’s rig superintendent listened as a voice far out to sea reported at 1 a.m. that the rig was listing badly. It was a grim message to receive from an oil rig, hung off and riding it out at the epicenter of a weather bomb. A brutal winter storm was producing winds of up to 90 knots and waves five stories high.
Mobil’s emergency response team was called in and the coast guard was notified. It was shortly after, that a second radio message arrived — a message that would send chills through Mobil’s Atlantic Place radio operations centre. “There will be no further radio communications from the Ocean Ranger. We are going to lifeboat stations,” it said.
Later that Monday morning, during a news conference at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s, a bleary-eyed Steve Romanski, Mobil’s manager of east coast operations said, “that was the last message we got from the Ranger.”
The truth is the Ocean Ranger story actually began days earlier while the rig was still safe — the men on board working their shifts, or in their berths or maybe watching the same bad television I was watching when that phone call came to my home. That phone call eight days earlier from a caller who wanted to tell me a story.
An Eerie Silence
It had happened the day before, while the man was still on board finishing out his two weeks ‘on.’ The man said he was wrapping up an all-nighter and was returning to his bunk at daybreak when he saw the first sign of trouble. It was as simple as the small privacy curtain hanging from his bunk. Curtains don’t normally hang sideways, but this one was — leaning way out there at a near right angle. It meant the rig had to be listing — and listing badly. I continued to listen.
The rig was a dynamically positioned floating structure prone to rolling and pitching with the movement of the sea. When it dipped, it normally bounced back, when it rolled, it usually stabilized a few seconds later. Not this time.
My contact was worried. “This time it didn’t come back,” he said. A few moments later the alarm sounded and he was off to the lifeboat station.
An eerie silence engulfed the Ocean Ranger that fair-weather morning in February. Silence replaced the “racket” that was a constant reminder that work never stopped on an exploration oil rig. When my contact arrived at the lifeboat station he was met by other crewmembers, several of whom were lightly dressed as if they’d just jumped from their bunks. Some had no lifejackets, no survival suits. Confusion and fear on their faces as they waited for further instructions. What happened next was another indictment of evacuation procedures on board one of the largest drilling rigs in the world. The engine on the lifeboat wouldn’t start. As the rig continued to list, the crewmembers gathered at that lifeboat station, waited anxiously for a second alarm that would mean “abandon the rig.”
It didn’t come. I continued to listen.
Reaction was Swift
That night, the Ocean Ranger story had a happier ending. The rig was eventually made right and life returned to normal at the J-34 Hibernia well. The man on the other end of the phone that Sunday evening was thankful to be back on dry land again. The roulette of scheduling meant he would live. The story generated by that phone call was over length, not the usual buck and a half (one minute and 30 seconds) that television news stories usually ran. There were artist’s sketches of a listing rig, and crew members running to the lifeboat station.
There was an interview with the head of the newly minted Newfoundland Petroleum Directorate. The listing incident was news to Steve Milan, even though strict guidelines at that time demanded the NPD be informed of any offshore ‘incidents.’ Odeco Drilling, the rig’s New Orleans owners, claimed there was never anything to worry about.
A company spokesman was interviewed over the phone and declared the list was a routine occurrence, necessary so workers could carry out maintenance on one of the rig’s giant pontoons.
The story went to air on NTV’s 6:00 o’clock newscast on Thursday, Feb. 11th and reaction to it was swift. Mobil Oil wasn’t impressed.
A spokesperson called to complain that the story was essentially a piece of fear mongering sensationalism which had needlessly alarmed family and friends of Ocean Ranger crewmembers.
Taking the High Ground
It was the kind of bluff and bluster that PR flaks are paid to dish out. That’s part of the game. So for most of that Friday I clucked my tongue and claimed the professional high ground. How dare they criticize a solid piece of fair, balanced and worthwhile television journalism. Then the doubt began to set in.
Had I gone too far? Had Odeco been above board in its account of the listing incident? Was it part of routine maintenance? Had Mobil Oil’s denunciation of the story been righteous and justified? Had I sewn fear in the minds of loved ones in the name of questionable journalism?
I thought about all of this. In fact I brooded over the possibilities for an entire weekend. Then on Sunday, a storm hit — a vicious winter storm that rattled windows and laid the landscape thick with snow. That night, about 175 miles out to sea, 84 brave souls felt their unsinkable rig list again. They raced to the lifeboat stations and some of them at least launched into the killing North Atlantic. This time, the rig didn’t come back and hours later the Ocean Ranger disappeared beneath the surface of the cold black water.
Waves and wind killed those men. They were nature’s culpability in the tragic sinking of the Ocean Ranger. Man was to blame too. A subsequent inquiry said mistakes were made at many levels. From the ballast control room on that stormy night, to governments and an industry that still had a lot to learn about safety and evacuation procedures aboard offshore oil rigs.
The oil and gas industry and the politicians would have years to try and make sense of it all. Reporters had until the next deadline.
It was a sunny day on Monday, Feb. 15th. At the Holiday Inn in St. John’s where the world’s media and industry officials had gathered, the mood was as black as soot as Mobil Oil’s president stood stone faced in the glare of television lights and began to speak.
“It is my very, very sad duty to tell you officially that the Ocean Ranger is lost. There were 84 people aboard and at this point in time we certainly can not hold out much hope for survivors.”
The worst had happened. The room went silent. Mason paused a second to allow the weight of his announcement to find its place. “On behalf of all the employees of Mobil I’d like to express my very deepest sympathy for the wives and families of the men on board.”
It was an unprecedented maritime tragedy. One of the largest oil rigs in the world was gone — swallowed up by a North Atlantic storm in the dark of night. There were no survivors. There were no bodies — yet. And unbelievably, there was nothing to suggest the cause of the rig’s disappearance, except for a pair of ominous radio messages from the doomed drilling platform.
The story flashed around the world, setting off a stampede of news people towards St. John’s from some of the finest journalist organizations on the planet.
NTV’s newsroom at Buckmaster’s Circle became the command centre for at least a dozen reporters, producers and cameramen representing heavyweight networks like ABC, CTV, and others. Harried pros sprang into action.
There were elements to gather — things that tell the story. The grief, the blame. The hopelessness of the recovery effort as ships, and aircraft converged on a patch of ocean revealing oil rig debris and sadly an overturned lifeboat.
I still remember someone’s interview with Captain Michael Clarke, an air, search and rescue specialist who was aboard the first helicopter to reach the scene at daybreak. His account of the snow storm still raging as they made a desperate attempt to retrieve bodies from 40 and 50 foot seas. ‘Lights on the water’ was a phrase that I haven’t forgotten — a witness describing tiny flashing lights on the life vests of the dead as they rose and fell on rolling waves.
Then there was Robert St. Aubin — another Ocean Ranger crewman who was on board eight days earlier when the rig listed that first time and the alarm was sounded. St. Aubin confirming what my guy had told me on the phone — that people showed up with no life preservers when they arrived at the lifeboat station — and that the boat’s engine was dead.
The media were fully involved now — racing to gather the story’s elements, looking for the hooks and angles — to satisfy their editorial masters in Toronto, and New York and all points in between. Canadian and American radio producers from places I had never heard of were calling — begging for voice reports on the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. The Americans wanted to know where Newfoundland was — what was a semi-submersible oil rig?
How in the hell could you sink one? Could you give us 30 seconds over the phone for our next newscast?
A Dark Anniversary
How could anyone wrap up the Ocean Ranger disaster in 30 seconds? Forty years later, the story is still untold in its entirety. The truth is the tragedy still haunts and hurts. For family members of those lost souls the dark anniversary must still bring the burdens of pain, regret and anger. Maybe all three are an inseparable price to be paid for a family’s memories.
Forty years later, I can still remember the story I filed on Monday, Feb. 15, 1982 — the day the Ocean Ranger sank. With the ocean behind me, I stood with my cameraman rolling, and — word for word — closed the story this way.
“For as long as Newfoundlanders have taken to their boats they have always taken with them the chances they would not return. But those odds have worsened now, as seagoing life embraces oil and gas activity — and as fishing boats are joined by oil rigs offshore.”