The Ocean Ranger, once considered the Cadillac of offshore oil rigs, capsized during a raging nighttime storm that generated seven-storey waves in the icy North Atlantic on Feb. 15, 1982.
The disaster 25 years ago claimed the lives of all 84 crew aboard, including Bursey's older brother Paul. It was the worst offshore drilling accident in Canadian history.
"We always looked upon the Ocean Ranger as being almost infallible, as being unsinkable," said Bursey, a retired high school history teacher.
"You were kind of at your wit's end, (thinking) `How can this be?' "
Owen Myers, a weather observer at another platform drilling on the Hibernia oilfield about 16 kilometres southwest from the Ocean Ranger, remembers the 25-metre wave that crashed into his rig like it happened yesterday.
"It was really like being inside of an oil drum and someone hit the outside with a baseball bat," Myers said, recalling how vulnerable he felt to nature's might.
"When you get out in a big storm like we had the night the Ocean Ranger sank, even the biggest rig or biggest ship doesn't seem so big anymore."
Myers also remembers hearing crews aboard the Ocean Ranger communicating over radio to a standby vessel in what would be their last transmission. Men jumped into lifeboats moments before the 121-metre-long rig toppled in the massive, heaving swells.
"We were looking on the radar screen on the bridge of the rig I was on and the target just disappeared," he said.
"One minute it was there, and then the next minute it's going out of sight. A few more sweeps and it was gone."
A large rogue wave is believed to have set off a chain of events that led to the tragedy.
A rush of water punched through a glass porthole aboard the Ocean Ranger, soaking an electrical panel used to control ballast gauges and pumps. As salt water seeped into the switches, they began to short out and the power was quickly shut down.
What happened next is unclear, but evidence gathered by a royal commission suggested the power was switched on several hours later. That caused the damaged switches to open the wrong ballast valves.
Woefully untrained crews tried to close the valves manually, but their efforts had the opposite effect, aggravating the situation.
A mayday was issued. Supply boats arrived at the scene, only to find severely damaged lifeboats and men bobbing in seas so rough they couldn't be reached.
"There was no visibility. It was a blinding snowstorm," Myers said. "They really never had a chance."
After its two-year probe, the commission concluded the Ocean Ranger had design faults which left the ballast control system vulnerable. But its report also noted that it could have withstood the brunt of the storm and subsequent flooding if those in charge were properly trained in how the ballast system worked.
The commission determined that the rig's lifeboats were inadequate and said the workers should have had survival suits.
Regulatory officials say the disaster led to vast improvements in safety standards for Canada's offshore oil industry. Lifeboats are better equipped and workers at offshore platforms now have access to survival suits.
But for Bursey, no amount of safety measures can tame the sea.
"I'm sure things are better out there than they were back in February 1982. How much better? I would not be able to say," he said.
"This North Atlantic is quite a monster when it wants to be and I don't know if there's anything out there that man can do if the fury of the sea wants to have its vengeance against us in whatever way it so desires."
His brother's body, like 62 others, was never found. Of the 84 who perished, 69 were Canadian - 56 of those from Newfoundland.
Premier Danny Williams and hundreds of others will attend a service at the St. Pius X Church in St. John's on Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster.
Federal politicians will also observe a minute of silence in the House of Commons.
|Ocean Ranger facts
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Facts about the Ocean Ranger, an oil rig that sank in a storm on Feb. 15, 1982, off Newfoundland's east coast:
Deaths: All 84 crew.
Location: The Hibernia oilfield, 315 kilometres southeast of St. John's.
Type of Rig: A floating platform that conducted exploratory drilling. Built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan in 1976. Owned by Ocean Drilling and Exploration Co. of New Orleans and operated by Mobil Oil Canada.
Size: With pontoons, 121 metres long. It was the world's largest self-propelled, semi-submersible drill rig.
Cause of Disaster: A royal commission report in August 1984 concluded the rig capsized because of design flaws and inadequate training of crew. It said workers might have been saved with better safety education, survival suits and adequate lifeboats.
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