The Byford Dolphin, a drilling rig operated by Dolphin Drilling under Fred Olsen Energy, held a semi-submersible design with column stabilization. Its drilling activities encompassed the North Sea’s United Kingdom, Danish, and Norwegian sectors during specific seasons. The rig was officially registered in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Saturation divers are highly skilled professionals specializing in underwater operations at extreme depths, reaching 500 feet (152 meters) or more. Their primary role involves servicing equipment on offshore oil rigs and undersea pipelines.
Unlike typical commercial divers who perform short underwater tasks and resurface, saturation divers undertake prolonged stays of up to 28 days for a single job. During this time, they reside within a cramped, high-pressure chamber, where they eat, sleep, and prepare for their shifts.
The compensation for saturation divers is significant, ranging between $30,000 and $45,000 monthly. However, the nature of their work is demanding and takes place in an alien and constricted environment, often inducing feelings of claustrophobia. Additionally, saturation diving carries inherent risks and can be hazardous.
Unfortunately, the rig encountered severe accidents, most notably an explosive decompression incident in 1983. This tragic event claimed the lives of four saturation divers and one dive tender while leaving another dive tender with grave injuries.
The Byford Dolphin catastrophe was a crucial wake-up call for the commercial diving industry. In response, the industry implemented stricter safety measures to ensure that no one else would face such a dreadful fate.
What is the Byford Dolphin and What Really Took Place?
The Byford Dolphin, constructed by Aker Engineering in 1974, was an offshore oil rig with a semi-submersible design. Weighing 3000 tons and operated by a crew of 100, it could drill in waters reaching depths of up to 460 meters.
The rig was equipped with an advanced Saturation Diving system developed by the French company COMEX to facilitate the construction and maintenance of wellheads at these depths.
On November 5, 1983, the Byford Dolphin was engaged in drilling operations within the Frigg Gas Field, located in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. At 4 AM, two British divers, Edwin Coward, and Roy Lucas, were resting in the dive chamber, while Norwegian divers Bjorn Bergersen and Truls Hellevik were returning from their shift in the transfer capsule.
Diving tenders William Crammond and Martin Saunders hoisted the capsule from the water. They docked it to the dive chamber, enabling Bergersen and Hellevik to enter through a short trunk and join Coward and Lucas.
As per the usual procedure, the divers were supposed to seal off the trunk and isolate the chamber, allowing the tenders to depressurize the capsule and detach it from the airlock. However, before Hellevik could close the chamber hatch, William Crammond mistakenly released the clamp securing the capsule to the trunk.
The consequences were immediate and horrifying. The capsule underwent a violent decompression and forcefully detached from the trunk, resulting in the tragic death of Crammond and severe injuries to Saunders. Inside the chamber, the pressure plummeted instantly from 9 atmospheres to just one.
Hellevik, who was crouching in the trunk, was tragically torn apart, with his body parts scattered across the rig deck. One witness reported discovering his liver was completely intact as if it had been surgically removed. At the same time, a portion of his spine was found 10 meters above the chamber on the rig derrick.
The other divers inside the chamber also suffered grievously. Autopsies conducted on Coward, Lucas, and Bergersen unveiled deposits of white fat obstructing their arteries and veins, a result of proteins cooking and precipitating due to the rapid boiling of their blood. Fortunately, all four divers are believed to have died instantaneously and without experiencing any pain.
The State of the Victims of The Byford Dolphin Tragedy
Extensive medical examinations were conducted on the remains of the four divers to investigate the tragic incident. The most significant discovery was the presence of large quantities of fat in major arteries, veins, and heart chambers, as well as intravascular fat within organs, particularly the liver.
This fat was not likely to be embolic in nature but appeared to have precipitated directly from the blood within the body. The autopsy findings indicated that the rapid formation of bubbles in the blood caused lipoprotein complexes’ denaturation, resulting in lipids’ insolubility.
In the case of the three divers who remained inside the chambers, their blood likely instantaneously boiled due to the explosive decompression, causing their circulation to halt immediately. As for the fourth diver, who was forcefully propelled out through the partially blocked doorway due to the blast, he suffered dismemberment and mutilation, leading to instant fatality.
Forensic pathologists investigating the incident determined that Hellevik, who was exposed to the highest pressure gradient and in the process of securing the inner door, was propelled through a crescent-shaped opening measuring 60 centimeters (24 inches) in length, created by the jammed interior trunk door.
The escaping air and pressure resulted in the separation of his thoracoabdominal cavity, leading to the fragmentation of his body. Consequently, all of his internal organs from the chest and abdomen, except for the trachea and a section of the small intestine, were expelled.
Additionally, a section of the thoracic spine and other body parts were projected some distance away, with one section found vertically 10 meters (30 feet) above the exterior pressure door. The entire autopsy report of the divers are available here.
The Aftermath of the Byford Disaster: Official Investigations
The investigative committee determined that the accident resulted from a human error committed by the dive tender who prematurely opened the clamp. The trunk door, designed with a center hinge resembling a butterfly valve disc, was rotated too far to the left, causing the interior hatch rim to become lodged in the door opening.
This created a crescent-shaped opening, similar to an ajar manhole cover, but held in place. The exact circumstances surrounding the tender’s decision to open the clamp before the trunk was depressurized remain unclear, whether it was done under the instruction of a supervisor, initiated independently, or due to miscommunication.
Communication between the tenders outside the chamber system relied solely on a bullhorn attached to the wall surface, and with the noise from the rig and sea, it was challenging to hear and comprehend what was happening.
Additionally, fatigue from long, demanding work hours took a toll on the divers, who often labored for 16-hour shifts.
Engineering failure was also identified as a contributing factor in the incident. The outdated Byford Dolphin diving system, dating back to 1975, lacked fail-safe hatches, outboard pressure gauges, and an interlocking mechanism that would have prevented the trunk from being opened while the system was pressurized.
Some former crew members of the Byford Dolphin and the Norwegian oil and petrochemical union, NOPEF, have come forward alleging a cover-up in the investigation.
They claim that the investigative commission failed to mention the irresponsible waivers granted to Comex regarding crucial equipment authorized by the diving section of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. These waivers played a significant role in the accident.
The individuals also asserted that the accident resulted from inadequate equipment, including clamping mechanisms with interlocking features (preventing opening while the chamber system was pressurized), outboard pressure gauges, and a reliable communication system.
These essential equipment upgrades were withheld due to dispensations the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate granted.
The North Sea Divers Alliance, comprising early North Sea divers and the relatives of those who lost their lives, persisted in pursuing a further investigation into the Byford Dolphin incident. In February 2008, they obtained a report suggesting faulty equipment as the cause of the tragedy.
Clare Lucas, the daughter of Roy Lucas, expressed her belief that the Norwegian Government was responsible for her father’s death, alleging that they knowingly employed an unsafe decompression chamber. Eventually, after 26 years, the families of the divers received compensation for the damages from the Norwegian government.
In addition to the major incident, the Byford Dolphin rig experienced another unfortunate occurrence. On 17 April 2002, a 44-year-old Norwegian worker suffered a fatal head injury in an industrial accident.
This incident led to the loss of an exploration contract with Statoil, as the company expressed concerns regarding the rig’s operating procedures. Consequently, the company incurred significant financial losses, amounting to millions of dollars in lost income.
A Conclusion to the Byford Dolphin
The Byford Dolphin rig remains active, currently under a contract with British Petroleum, while saturation diving remains a prevalent practice in the offshore oil industry. It is consistently recognized as one of the world’s most hazardous yet highly compensated professions, with many divers earning up to $1400 USD daily.
Although safety measures and accident rates have significantly improved since 1983, the Byford Dolphin incident is a striking testament to the inherent risks involved in living and working in extreme environments.
The Byford Dolphin incident serves as a tragic reminder of the dangers faced by saturation divers in the offshore industry. The catastrophic explosive decompression in 1983 left a lasting impact on the diving industry.
This unfortunate event underscores the importance of stringent safety regulations, thorough equipment inspections, and proper training in the offshore industry. It serves as a poignant reminder that despite high pay and advanced technology, saturation diving remains a demanding and hazardous profession, with divers risking their lives in an otherworldly and claustrophobic environment.
Ultimately, the legacy of the Byford Dolphin incident highlights the need for continuous improvement in safety practices and the protection workers in high-risk industries. It serves as a solemn reminder that every effort must be made to ensure the well-being and security of those who work in extreme conditions.
Next, read about the Elephant Man, the True Story of Joseph Merrick, Who Was Ridiculed for His Affliction. Then, if you’re into serial killers and all, try the story of Dorángel Vargas, the Venezuelan Serial Killer known as the People Eater!
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