Texan troubleshooter Red Adair’s rescue team tamed the flames of an ill-fated North Sea oil rig – only for it to go on fire again three times in Dundee.
The industry was still reeling from the world’s worst offshore oil disaster – the Piper Alpha fire – when the Ocean Odyssey drilling rig erupted in a fireball just 10 weeks later.
During the resulting fire, the radio operator, Timothy Williams, who was just 25, was killed on his first trip offshore.
After the fire, which took place 138 miles east of Aberdeen, the Odyssey’s story took an interesting turn.
The rig went on fire again three times in three months after she was towed to Dundee harbour to face an ignominious end in the breaker’s yard.
She spent five years rusting in Dundee before eventually being sold to become the world’s first sea-going rocket launcher.
The story starts in the early 1980s.
Ocean Odyssey was one of the largest mobile drilling platforms ever built.
The rig’s structure was designed to simultaneously withstand 100-knot winds, 110-foot waves and a three-knot current.
She was completed in March 1983 by Sumitomo Heavy Industries in Japan for the Odeco offshore drilling company of New Orleans.
During construction the vessel was called Ocean Ranger II but was renamed Ocean Odyssey after the ‘unsinkable’ Ocean Ranger capsized and sank with all hands lost during a storm off Newfoundland in February 1982.
After completing sea trials on Tokyo Bay, the platform drilled off the coasts of Alaska and California between April 1983 and September 1985 for Arco Alaska Inc.
The Odeco rig was just five years old when it set its bit into drilling exploration well 22/30b-3 in the Central Graben of the North Sea for Arco.
By September 21 an 8.5 inch hole had been drilled to 4,925m (16,160ft) but drilling had been curtailed as the crew attempted to cure severe drilling fluid losses into the sedimentary formation deep below.
It was around 5.30am the following day, with limited drilling mud and barite supplies left that the Arco representatives chose to pull out of the hole to try and regain circulation.
Up to 70 barrels were gained by 9am as the bit was tripped out to 4,023m (13,200ft), at which point it seems the Arco rep decided to stop and circulate.
Subsequent gains led to attempts at well control via the choke.
At around 11.30am, a sharp rise in casing pressure was seen, with substantial mud returns and there was gas vapour present at the drill-floor’s rotary table.
With the bit at 4,023m the circulating pressure was not great enough to prevent a gas influx into the well and the well began to flow.
The control room operator was then alerted to a gas kick and all rig crew were ordered to lifeboat stations as a precautionary measure.
At around 12.55pm the first explosion occurred and the four remaining crew on the drill-floor were evacuated to lifeboats.
The well was not shut in completely with the lower rams.
A few minutes later, there was catastrophic choke hose failure due to the uncontrolled flow of aggressive fluids.
This led to the release of large quantities of gas and caused fires both on the rig and on the surface of the sea beneath the rig.
The off-duty radio operator Timothy Williams was ordered by the OIM (offshore installation manager) to leave his lifeboat and return to the radio room to continue communications.
Mr Williams subsequently died from the effects of smoke and fire at around 1.20pm in the pilot house, while trying to evacuate the rig.
Of the 67 crew on board, 58 were evacuated by enclosed lifeboat with eight others jumping directly into the sea after missing the launching of the lifeboats, where they were picked up by fast rescue craft from the Notts Forest, the Odyssey’s stand-by vessel.
Crew members in the lifeboats reported waiting with the boat hatches open for the remainder of the crew until the first explosion occurred and boat launching began.
The four drill-floor crew arrived at the boats at this point and jumped in through the hatches of the boats, just as the survival-suited occupants were trying to close the hatches as a wall of fire approached.
— Allison Smith (@voicegal) June 29, 2020
It was the legendary firefighter Red Adair, fresh from handling the Piper Alpha conflagration, whose team was called in from Texas to extinguish the blaze aboard the Odyssey.
After the fire, the Odyssey was towed to Dundee harbour in October where she was tied up at quay at the Davy GVA base at Prince Charles Wharf.
The rig was declared an insurance write-off and sold to Grangemouth-based James A White & Partners who had been dismantling her for scrap.
She went on fire again on March 17 after being moved west to a new berth at the former Robb Caledon shipyard to make way for the Ali Baba oil rig.
Massive columns of thick black smoke, which could be seen as far away as Monifieth, rose hundreds of feet skywards over Craigiebank and West Ferry from the stricken steel giant.
The dockside drama began shortly before noon when the fire broke out in an engine room in close proximity to diesel fuel tanks.
Workmen from a salvage company had been using cutting equipment to demolish the platform.
A spark from a cutting torch had set fire to the diesel-soaked engine room floor.
They were all evacuated quickly and safely.
The wind blew huge streams of smoke up to around 300 feet in the air.
The wharf area was quickly sealed off with traffic prevented from travelling down Fish Dock Lane and Caledon Street.
Eleven machines – eight pumping appliances, hydraulic platform, special communications unit and a foam salvage tender – rushed to the spectacular blaze.
Fifty firefighters traversed a walkway between the shore and base of the rig before covering into a personnel hoist which took them up 100 feet on to the platform level where the fire had broken out.
A large percentage of the firefighters were already familiar with the rig before arriving to fight the fire, having visited the structure on routine visits while it was berthed in the Tay.
The men faced very difficult conditions on the structure already weakened by the earlier fire.
Firefighters had to wear breathing apparatus to combat thick smoke, and choking fumes from residual diesel left on the platform.
They also had to cope with the shifting level of the platform in the water, as the tide slowly ebbed during the hazardous operation.
In the early stages they had to proceed with great caution and loud banging noises were heard as the men trained their water jets on the flames which was the sound of metal buckling in the intense heat.
A crane at the corner of the Ocean Odyssey was used to lift aboard hose reels and other firefighting equipment.
It was some minutes before the firefighters could begin to tackle the blaze and flames could be seen briefly as a series of small explosions sent out even greater palls of smoke.
The crews battled for several hours through acrid black smoke to put out the flames by pumping thousands of gallons of water from the River Tay.
Just a month later she went on fire again for the third time in eight months but fortunately the incident proved less serious than the spectacular blaze aboard the rig in March.
It was almost one hour before the flames could eventually be doused.
A number of spectators gathered round the docks as flames licked up from the northern side of the deck, facing the shore, and thick smoke billowed up around the drilling tower.
The area was immediately sealed off by the port authority and police as fire engines raced to the scene.
The rig went on fire for a third time in Dundee in June 1989 when a spark from cutting equipment set fire to diesel lying on the deck.
Workers extinguished the blaze before firefighters arrived.
At the subsequent fatal accident inquiry held at Aberdeen’s sheriff court in 1990, both the OIM’s and Arco’s (Atlantic Richfield) handling of the North Sea incident in September 1988 was censured.
The inquiry recorded: “The death of Timothy Williams might reasonably have been prevented (i) if the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) had not ordered him from the lifeboat to the radio room; (ii) if the OIM, having ordered Timothy Williams back to the radio room, had countermanded that order when the rig was evacuated, and taken steps to see that the countermanding order was communicated to him.”
The inquiry also concluded that the Arco representatives had not followed safe and correct drilling practices in the management of the well, which included failing to correctly identify shut-in drill-pipe pressure, failing to correctly calculate the circulation time of the gas kick and failing to shut in the well once the well began flowing uncontrollably.
The incident was also featured in the 1990 STV television series Rescue episode “Missing”.
The survivors of the Ocean Odyssey were collectively offered some £6 million in compensation in 1992, via an out-of-court settlement reached with the rig’s owners.
She was later sold in 1994 to become the world’s first sea-going rocket launcher.
Norwegian-based Kvaerner, in partnership with US aerospace company Boeing and Russian and Ukrainian rocket companies, formed an international corporation called Sea Launch.
Building a dedicated offshore platform would be long and costly but Ocean Odyssey was available for such a conversion which was completed at a yard in St Petersburg which was owned by Kvaerner.
The first rocket was launched in March 1999.
In January 2007, a Zenit-3SL carrying the NSS-8 satellite exploded aboard Odyssey at lift-off due to a turbo pump malfunction.
There were no injuries, as the ship had been evacuated for launch operations.
Damage to the launch platform was mostly superficial.
The vessel was repaired at a shipyard in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Sea Launch mothballed its ships and put operations on long-term hiatus in 2014, following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
“A Red-Haired Texan Does Brisk Business Taming Wild Oil Wells”
Red Adair was an American oil well firefighter who found worldwide fame for his daring and expertise in extinguishing and capping blowouts.
Born in Houston, Texas, he took up the trade after serving in a bomb disposal unit during the Second World War.
He founded Red Adair Co in 1959, and went on to battle more than 2,000 blazes.
In 1977, he and his crew were involved in capping the North Sea’s biggest oil well blowout at the Ekofisk Bravo platform in the Norwegian sector.
He returned in 1988 to help put out the fire on the Piper Alpha oil platform after the explosion claimed the lives of 167 men.
Still in action at the age of 75, he took part in extinguishing the oil well fires in Kuwait set by retreating Iraqi troops after the Gulf War in 1991.
Red Adair retired in 1993 and died in 2004, aged 89.
The 1968 John Wayne movie Hellfighters was based on his 1962 adventures in the Sahara Desert when he tackled a blaze nicknamed “the devil’s cigarette lighter”, which had burned at the Gassi Touil gas field for more than five months.