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Remembering the Kielland disaster

Author : Paul Gay

06 April 2010

This Easter, the oil and gas community marked the sombre anniversary of a tragic offshore accident that occurred three decades ago when 123 oil workers died as a floating accommodation unit capsized into the Ekofisk area of the North Sea. Now is a time for reflection and a reminder that the protection of human lives must always be our first concern. We must never see a repeat of the Kielland disaster.

Alexander L. Kielland capsized in the North Sea
Alexander L. Kielland capsized in the North Sea

The present director-general of the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway, Magne Ognedal, personally experienced the sinking of the Alexander L Kielland flotel, albeit from the safety of a secure office on dry land. At the time, the dimensions of the incident were simply so incredible and unreal that the whole population of Norway was in shock.

Engineers who worked on safety at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate in those days promised each other they would do their utmost to prevent anything similar from happening in the future. Thirty years on, it is appropriate that everybody remembers and reflects on the Kielland disaster.

Today’s offshore installations unquestionably incorporate substantially higher standards of safety and the working environment than they did 30 years ago and that reflects in part the lessons learnt from the Kielland disaster. It is very unlikely that another accident with the same causes could have similarly disastrous consequences today.

The real worry is that the industry may be losing focus. Many of the young people entering the oil and gas business would have scarcely heard of the Alexander L Kielland and must be reminded of previous disasters and learn from the mistakes of earlier generations.

We must never forget that the protection of human lives must always come first and do our uttermost to prevent anything like the Kielland accident from happening again.

The Kielland disaster
The Alexander L. Kielland was a Pentagon-type semi-submersible located in the Ekofisk Field for Phillips Petroleum, acting as a floating hotel for workers from the Edda Platform. Around 1830 hours on 27 March 1980, one of the main horizontal braces supporting one of the five legs failed due to gale force winds and high seas. The failure of the brace was later attributed to a fracture which had developed around a hole in the structure which a hydrophone, used to aid the positioning of the rig, had been installed. After the failure of the first brace, the remaining five braces attached to the leg failed in quick succession causing the leg to break off. The rig almost immediately listed to one side, partially submerging the main deck and accommodation block.

The initial collapse occurred within a minute but the Kielland remained floating for about another 14 minutes. During this time, a number of attempts were made to launch lifeboats, with only two of the seven lifeboats launched successfully. Three of the lifeboats were smashed against the rig's legs as result of the storm winds and waves whilst being lowered, leading to a number of casualties. After around 15 minutes, as water flowed into another two of the rig's legs, the last anchor wire parted and the rig rolled over completely with only the undersides of its legs visible above the surface.

On top of the high winds and waves, the men also faced near freezing waters with little protection. While some did manage to swim to the Edda Platform, which the flotel served, others were swept away by 10m waves and strong currents as they attempted to reach rescue boats or other rigs.

There were 212 men aboard the Kielland – 123 perished and only 89 survived.

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