Flawed gem turned triumph to tragedy

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When the first gas was discovered in the North Sea 50 years ago it was hailed as a national triumph and launched the British oil and gas industry.

But within weeks that triumph turned to tragedy when the BP Sea Gem rig collapsed without warning, just two days after Christmas Day in December 1965, killing 13 and injuring five of the 32 crew members on board.

Half an hour after it started to tilt, the 5600-ton drilling barge crashed down, throwing men who had been holding on for their lives into mountainous waves in the bitter winter weather.

Drilling 42 miles east of the River Humber, the rig’s crew had a large Scottish contingent, many of whom had left the pits in search of better opportunities on drilling rigs in the Persian Gulf.

“It was a close circle of guys, a lot of them Scottish,” remembered Bill Hunter, of Bridge of Don, who escaped the disaster by sheer chance – he should have been on board but had been allowed home.

Over the Christmas period only one shift of men had been working on the drilling operations so that the other two shifts could have Christmas at home.

“Most of us had transferred from the Gulf and there was a great sense of being pioneers as it was the first rig in the North Sea to strike gas.”

Originally from Methil, Fife, Bill (75) lost two relatives in the accident – fellow Fifers and cousins David Henderson, from Methil, and Robert Gibson, from Crossford, near Dunfermline – and many good friends.

A derrickman on the rig, he remembered in particular driller Sam Coull, from Peterhead.

“He was a great man, with a young son he doted on – his death really affected me,” Mr Hunter said. “We were such a close community and it was a real shock.”

Two other Scots among the survivors were Kirkcaldy man George Crichton, who had been in his bunk when the rig started to tilt; John Gate, of Oakley, and Ken Forsyth, of Inverness.

One of the survivors who has done much to keep the story of the Sea Gem alive is Kevin Topham, who is curator of the Dukes Wood Oil Museum in Nottinghamshire.

Back in 1965 he was on the drilling team and had been reading in his cabin when the rig started to go over.

He went up on deck and tried to help others who were trying to release a liferaft but they were beaten back by the strength of the waves.

Mr Topham later described how they were faced with a choice: go on the helicopter deck and hope for rescue or jump into the sea.

Some of the crew scrambled to the end of the platform floating highest out of the water but they were taken under when the whole rig suddenly turned over without warning.

Mr Topham jumped and survived by getting into a makeshift dinghy, despite being buffeted by 20-foot waves.

“It took about half-an-hour for the rig to go down and it seemed like a year,” he recalled.

He remembers seeing men, even strong swimmers, perishing of exposure in the icy cold sea.

THE RACE TO FIND SURVIVORS

It had been on September 30, 1965, that the Sea Gem, standing on 10 legs in 80ft of water, became the first rig to strike gas. A fortnight later BP announced the rig had found a second larger 
deposit two miles beneath the sea bed.

Flow tests of the natural-gas pocket discovered showed a capacity of 10 million cubic ft a day, enough to prompt the Government to recommend building an undersea pipeline to bring the gas to land.

Then, on the afternoon of December 27, the crew began preparing to move the rig to a new position two miles away but as the legs were being lowered, two suddenly crumpled and the rig tilted sideways to a 45 degree angle.

No SOS message could be made as the radio cabin was washed into the sea.

It was only luck that a cargo ship, the Baltrover, was nearby and saw events unfold.

At 2.09pm the Baltrover made the first distress call, saying: “Oil rig Sea Gem has just collapsed and sinking. Am sending a boat across to her. Require further assistance.”

The Baltrover sent a lifeboat towards the survivors, who were taken on board from inflatable dinghies.

By the time rescue helicopters had arrived, around an hour after the alarm was raised, there was nothing to been seen of the rig except for one of the legs sticking above the water and a mass of wreckage.

RAF Sgt Lee Smith, who was on an RAF helicopter from Leaconfield, reported at the time: “It was a terrible mess. There was debris everywhere and we could see five men in the water. Two of them seemed to be dead.”

The helicopter managed to winch three of the men on board but only two survived.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE AFTERMATH

A public inquiry into the sinking of the Sea Gem concluded metal fatigue in part of the suspension system linking the hull to the legs was to blame.

The inquiry recommended improving safety precautions such as regular inspections, a clear chain of command and better communication 
with workers.

Required measures included mandatory stand-by vessels and the legal requirement for an offshore installation manager for every offshore rig and platform.

The Sea Gem’s well was written off and new wells were drilled in Block 48/6 area, now known as West Sole Field.

The new Sea Quest floating platform began drilling nearby in July 1966.