Britain’s first North Sea oil rig collapses

Britain’s first North Sea oil rig collapses

December 27, 1965: Britain’s first ever North Sea oil rig collapsed and killed 13 men during a bitter snowstorm and 20ft-high waves on this day in 1965.

BP’s Sea Gem drilling platform was in the process of being moved to another site around 40 miles off the Lincolnshire coast when the disaster happened.

As the rig – a converted barge - was being lowered so that it could sail off to a new exploration site, two of its 10 support legs crumpled and the vessel tilted sideways.

Many of the 32 workers were instantly plunged into icy water while others were forced to jump in before the craft capsized and eventually sank.

Described the collapse, one of the survivors, Robert Hessey, said: “I saw the crane topple over the deck.

“There was a loud sound of grinding and rumbling. I hadn't realised what was happening until I heard someone shouting: ‘She's sinking.’”

Luckily, the British freight ship Baltrover was nearby and was able send out an alarm help pick up some of the freezing survivors.

An RAF and a civilian helicopter eventually assisted it and between them they rescued 19 men.

Flight Sergeant John Reeson, who revealed that only one of the rig’s legs was standing when they arrived, described the treacherous conditions they worked in.

“We went out through a snowstorm,” he told the BBC.

“It was clear weather around the oil rig but it was rough. There were waves 15ft to 20ft high.

“I went down the winch line to men I could see in the water. It was freezing cold. They had been in the water an hour or two before we got there.

“One man hanging on to a life raft clutched me with a grip of iron when I reached him.

“It was almost impossible to pick him up, but I managed it. He was desperate.”

Others were less lucky. Two bodies were quickly found and 11 more were discovered over the next few days.

In the aftermath, an inquiry concluded that metal fatigue had caused the collapse and new safety measures were ordered, including forcing rigs to have a standby boat.

Part of the problem was that this form of prospecting was new and in the 1960s it was unknown how much fossil fuels they could find.

The one-year-old Sea Gem had failed to find any oil – but discovered enough gas to supply a city of 300,000 people.

Yet this was considered uneconomical and BP, which was then state owned, wanted to look for a larger supply.

Within a year of the disaster, the firm was ready to have another and sent the Sea Quest semi-submersible drilling platform out to search for undersea treasure.

                                      [On This Day: King Edward VIII abdicates]

A British Pathé newsreel shows the £3.5million, more high-tech rig being constructed at Belfast’s iconic Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic was built.

She discovered Britain’s first North Sea oil at the Arbroath Field in 1969 and a year later found the first giant oil field named the Forties, sparking a drilling bonanza.

By the 1980s, Britain was earning £100billion a year in tax receipts.

Controversially, successive governments have ploughed all the cash into public spending.

During Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, most of the money was used to pay the benefits for the record three million people who were unemployed.

Norway, on the other hand, set aside most of the money it made from its reserves of North Sea oil and gas and saved it in a sovereign wealth fund for future generations.

British oil drilling peaked in 1999 while gas extraction reached peaked in 2001.

The job of drilling remains extremely hazardous.

The worst North Sea accident in the UK sector occurred in 1988 when a gas and oil explosion killed 167 workers on the Piper Alpha platform.

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