Offshore Accidents of the 20th & 21st Centuries
History's Worst Oil Rig Explosions, Spills & Accidents
Drilling for oil is inherently dangerous. Workers exert astronomical pressure on the earth's foundation, using enormous pressure and power to drill and extract the planet's natural resources deep within the ground. Whether offshore in the Gulf or in the oilfields of West Texas and the Northeastern United States, oil rig workers are among the most skilled and most at-risk workers in the nation.
Oil companies and rig workers must take extreme precaution during all parts of the drilling process to avoid disaster. Even one mistake or missed safety procedure can lead to a catastrophic blowout. Unfortunately, oil companies often cut corners to save time and money. In doing so, they put the lives of the workers at risk. Fires and explosions that occur on oil rigs are some of the most devastating types of offshore accidents that can ever happen. The injuries workers sustain from oil rig accidents result in long-term consequences for themselves and their families.
Below, we've reported on the most significant oil rig fires and explosions in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Santa Barbara Oil Spill (January 1969)
In January 1969, Union Oil began drilling a fifth oil well on their offshore Platform A, just over five miles from the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. On the morning of January 28, the well blew out, spewing oil and gas. The explosion cracked the sea floor in 5 places and released 1,000 gallons of oil an hour. A second blow out in a different well followed on February 24th. Eventually, the California coastline would be devastated by 3 million gallons of crude—the largest oil spill in the nation’s history until the Exxon Valdez 20 years later. The destruction was both so immense and so visible that it sparked the environmental advocacy movement as we know it. The spill led to the signing of the National Environmental Policy Act, which required the creation of environmental impact reports on major projects. The spill created a cultural moment, too. For the first time, regular Americans were deeply concerned with environmental health. The following year marked the first time the U.S. celebrated Earth Day.
The Alexander L. Kielland Disaster (March 1980)
In March 1980, one of the deadliest oil rig accidents in history occurred due to a fatigue crack caused by a bad weld job 6mm wide. On March 27, more than 200 oil rig workers were aboard the Alexander L. Kielland, a “floating hotel” for off-duty operators that included a cinema among its amenities. The oil platform was owned by Stavanger Drilling Company, but it was being used by Phillips Petroleum at the time.
In the evening, while the men were enjoying their off hours, the wind outside had picked up to 45 miles per hour with 40-foot waves. Around 6:30 PM, the men reported hearing a loud crack—later determined to be the snapping of 5 anchor cables. The sixth cable barely held, preventing the platform from capsizing. However, because there was a poor command structure aboard the Kielland, most of the men did not attempt to escape the platform. Within 20 minutes, the sixth anchor cable snapped and the platform capsized. Of the seven 50-man lifeboats and twenty 20-man rafts, only 1 lifeboat and 2 rafts were able to release from the lowering cables. Of the 212 men aboard, 123 were killed. The tragedy led to new requirements for lifeboat hooks and new command structures to facilitate faster abandonment of sinking vessels.
The Ocean Ranger Disaster (February 1982)
The Ocean Ranger was a mobile offshore drilling rig that sank near Canada in February 1982 while drilling an exploratory well for Mobil Oil of Canada. The evening of February 14, 1982, Ocean Ranger and nearby vessels were hit by a rogue wave. The oil platform was heard over the radio describing how a porthole window was broken, allowing water to enter the ballast control room. The vessel was getting hit by waves 65 feet or higher, while the porthole window was only at 28 feet. After midnight, Ocean Ranger reported they were listing 10-15 degrees.
At around 1 AM, local authorities and Mobil helicopters were alerted to the situation. All nearby vessels were asked to assist the platform, which was still leaning 10 degrees to the left. The Ocean Ranger transmitted a final message that they were abandoning ship.
All 84 of the crew, including 46 Mobil employees and 38 contractors, were killed. Investigators found that nearby vessels were not equipped to rescue casualties from the sea, especially in severe weather, so most of the crew died from drowning or hypothermia.
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster (April 2010)
The destruction of the Deepwater Horizon is one of the worst offshore disasters in recent memory. The rig, owned by Transocean and drilling for BP, exploded and caught fire on April 20, 2010 off the Louisiana coast. The oil rig explosion was preceded by numerous red flags. In 2009, BP engineers were concerned that the materials they wanted to use for drilling would buckle under pressure. Rig workers believed they would be fired for raising safety concerns, but many were concerned that the equipment was unreliable and required maintenance.
In March 2010, an accident went unreported that damaged the blowout preventer (which had gone uninspected since 2005). On the night of the explosion, BP engineers saw warning signs hours before the blowout that the well was going to explode. At 9:56 PM, a bubble of methane gas traveled up the drill column, expanding as it climbed. Survivors described two “vibrations” prior to the fire starting.
The oil rig fire burned for over a day before the Deepwater Horizon sank. Of the 126 people onboard, 11 were killed and 17 were transported to trauma centers. Other workers were transported to a hotel in Kenner, Louisiana where they were asked to sign a waiver asserting that they were not injured. Workers reported feeling as though they were being forced to sign the waiver before being given what they needed.
Transocean denied any allegations that they forced workers to sign any waivers.
There have been dozens of tragic accidents like these in the offshore drilling industry:
Mexico's government-owned oil company, Pemex, used a semi-submersible drilling rig to create Ixtoc I, an exploratory oil well 62 miles off the coast of Campeche, Mexico. On June 3, the well experienced a blowout, initially leaking 30,000 barrels of oil into the gulf each day. Though various efforts were undertaken to lessen the leakage, the spill remained uncontained until March 1980.
August 1984 & April 1988
Petrobras' Enchova drilling platform, operating in the Campos Basin near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil experienced its first disaster in 1984 when a blowout on the morning of August 16 led to an explosion and fire. 42 workers died in the evacuation, including 36 who fell from a lifeboat when its mechanism failed. Less than four years later, in April 1988, the well suffered a gas blowout while being converted from oil to gas. The drill pipe was forced out of the well and struck a platform leg, causing sparks to ignite the gas. The resulting fire burned for 31 days, but the crew members were able to abandon the platform without casualty.
Occidental Petroleum's Piper Alpha oil production platform exploded in the North Sea after a series of malfunctioning parts and a small gas leak ignited under pressure. Eventually, the pipeline connecting Piper to the Claymore Platform burst and the Piper slipped into the sea. Of the 224 crewmembers, 165 were killed and 2 rescue vessel crewmen also perished. Only 59 individuals survived. At the time of the accident, the Piper was contributing approximately 10% of the North Sea's oil and gas production.
Typhoon Gay overtook the Seacrest, a drilling ship belonging to UNOCAL (which merged with Chevron in 2005.) The Seacrest capsized and floated for several days before sinking, killing 91 of the 97 crewmembers.
Petrobras' P-36 oil platform, the largest semi-submersible in the world at the time, experienced two back-to-back explosions which killed 11 of the 175 workers. After the explosions, the platform began to list, finally sinking five days later.
A multi-purpose support vessel crashed into Indian government-owned Mumbai High North platform. An explosion and massive fire resulted. The platform was evacuated and destroyed within two hours. 22 of the 384 workers onboard were killed.
Oil began to leak from Seadrill's West Atlas rig in the Timor Sea off the coast of Australia. All workers were evacuated, but the resulting oil slick spreads over 2300 square miles of water, killing marine life in affected areas. The leak was not plugged until 11/1.
Mariner Energy's Vermillion Oil Rig 380 exploded off the coast of Louisiana, just 200 miles east of the site where the Deepwater Horizon tragedy occurred. A supply ship rescued all 13 crewmembers. None were seriously injured.
Chevron Nigeria Limited oil rig experienced an explosion six miles off the coast of the African nation. The fire was still burning three days later. As of January 20, 2012, two workers were still missing and presumed dead. Fish were dying in large numbers, and coastal residents were scared to eat living marine animals as they may have been contaminated.
An oil rig owned by Petrobras exploded off of the Brazilian coast. The incident killed 5 workers and injured more than 25 others.
A Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion killed 4 workers and injured 45 others. Pemex operated the rig. Approximately 300 workers were evacuated from the platform after the fire broke out overnight.
A fire broke out in the Gunashli oilfield after a storm damaged a high-pressure subsea gas pipeline. The fire spread to multiple wells; eventually, production was suspended, pipelines closed, and electricity shut off. More than 60 workers were onboard at the time of the incident. The Ministry of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan reported 10 killed, 20 missing, and 9 hospitalized.
Oil Rig Disaster FAQ
What Caused the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Explosion?
Mechanically, the answer is the blowout preventer was damaged. It hadn’t been inspected in five years, and it had suffered an unreported accident a month prior to the Deepwater Horizon incident. On the night of the explosion, a methane gas bubble was able to travel up the drilling platform due to the damaged blowout preventer. The human element in all this was the fact that BP was weeks behind schedule, tens millions of dollars over budget, and taking dangerous shortcuts that eventually resulted in mistakes that led to the fatal explosion.
What Is the Deadliest Offshore Oil Rig Disaster in History?
In terms of sheer loss of life, the Piper Alpha disaster is the deadliest offshore oil rig disaster ever recorded. On July 6, 1988, there was a pump maintenance project that led to the removal of a safety valve on a gas pipe. The pipe was temporarily sealed, and the pump was ordered to be left off until the project could be completed. However, due to a communication error, the next shift crew turned on the pump. This led to a gas leak that created a series of massive explosions. The explosions killed 167 people, leaving only 61 survivors of a 226-person crew.
How Often Do Oil Rig Explosions Occur?
Oil rig explosions are like plane crashes: they are rare, but when they occur, there’s usually a tremendous loss of life. Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, said “These events are low probability with a high consequence.” Like plane crashes, oil rig explosions are almost always due to human error, which is why it’s vital to hold oil companies accountable when something goes terribly wrong.
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