Those Who Fail To Learn From The Mistakes Of History Are Doomed To Repeat Them

The title of this blog is the reason for reminding ourselves of the cascade of negligent failures which resulted in the loss of the Ocean Ranger off Newfoundland shores in 1982.

An important work was published by Nova Scotia native Susan Dodd, called “The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil”. The book chronicles the tragedy of the sinking of the “unsinkable” Odeco oil rig in a fierce storm over the Hibernia field, taking the lives of the entire 84-man crew. The Ocean Ranger was the largest semi-submersible oil rig in the world at the time. It sank as a result of gross negligence and recklessness on the part of the owners and contractors. The wrongful death lawsuits which resulted were fought tooth and nail by the companies until at last, surviving families were beaten down into accepting minimal settlements of money damages.

My father, Honourable John C. Crosbie, gave an address to Rotary in early January, in which he outlined some of the highlights of his previous year as Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador. He drew attention to the critical importance of not forgetting the lessons of the Ocean Ranger tragedy. In that spirit, I offer his description of how this preventable disaster and loss of human life occurred.

We should all recall, as this book fully and authoritatively sets out, that on the night of February 14, 1982 when the rig was hit by a violent North Atlantic storm, waves crashed against the rig’s giant legs, one of which housed a room where men monitored and controlled the rig’s stability by letting water in and out of its massive pontoons. A port light in the ballast room was smashed during the rising storm and salt water rushed in to soak the ballast control panel with its lights flashing erratically. Unfortunately, no one knew what to do. As the book reports, the men had no formal training. They had no marine captain who understood the rig. There was no one ashore they trusted to advise them. Their operating manual was incomplete at best and their training had been misleading at worst. If the men had closed the port light, mopped up the water and gone to sleep, they might have lived to see the dawn. The book reports that much of the Ocean Ranger’s safety equipment did not work. The men were not trained to muster at designated boats or to launch and operate the lifeboats. They did not have cold water immersion suits. Some of the men jumped into the February North Atlantic in their jeans and flannel shirts.

The author of this remarkable book ends with the conclusion that each event and action which contributed to the loss of the Ocean Ranger was either the result of design deficiencies or was crew-initiated. The disaster could have been avoided by relatively minor modifications to the design of the rig and its systems and it should, in any event, have been prevented by competent and informed action by those onboard. Because of inadequate training and lack of manuals and technical information, the crew failed to interrupt the fatal chain of events which led to the eventual loss of the Ocean Ranger. It is the essence of good design to reduce the possibility of human error and of good management to ensure that employees receive training adequate to their responsibilities. Unfortunately, both were lacking.

This important work of Susan Dodd, published by a small publisher in Halifax, has received very little attention in Newfoundland and could not even be found in bookstores for several months.  This is a book that should be read by every literate, alert and interested person, certainly in Newfoundland and Labrador. That is why I bring it to your attention again, since in this Province, our past and our future have always involved taking risks by way of fishing, sealing, and activities on the water and in the water and with the modern offshore oil and gas industry under the water and under the land under the water. The author is a well-trained and able writer, teaches at a university in Nova Scotia, and who, herself lost a brother in this tragedy. I bring it to the attention of Rotarians again and to anyone who might read my words today, since it is an eye-opener on our past history and past mistakes which we must ensure are never allowed to be repeated.

Inquiries and wrongful death lawsuits will never be a substitute for injury prevention and diligent attention to prevention of injury and death and promotion of safety.