Adventure Travel - National Geographic Adventure Magazine

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    HOME WEEKEND ESCAPES INTERNATIONAL TRIPS RATINGS PHOTOGRAPHY VIDEO GEAR BLOGS RSS SUBSCRIBEDeep Surviv al With Laurence Gonzales

    Lessons From an Oil Rig: Why Dangerous Places Have Fewer Fatal it ies Than "Safe"

    Text by Lauren ce Gonzales

    Occasional ly, I Iike to visi t some place where the objective ha zards appear so great that I can remin d myself wh at payi ng attenti on really m eans. The

    way we behave in envi ronments fu ll of risk is pretty different fr om how we act in the safety of our world at h ome. For exam ple, I once went out to an oil

    rig in th e Gul f of Mexico and found what l ooked like the most haza rdous envir onment Id ever seen.

    I traveled by boat from Galveston, Texas, leavi ng i n the m iddle of the ni ght a nd arri ving at the base of the rig i n th e morning for the chan ge of crew. A

    cran e lowered somethi ng to us tha t looked like an oversize orange l ife ri ng, with rope webbed above it like a tent. I stood on the ri ng with several cr ew

    members, gra bbed the rope, and was pull ed 20 stories into the air an d set down in th e midst of the whi rli ng, roarin g mach in ery. The ride up there scared

    me ha lf to death, bu t the busi ness end of the oil ri g was even worse.

    The deck was strewn with sh arp objects, welding tanks, hoses, and drums, a nd we were surrounded by churn ing gears and gri nding machin ery. The

    crew worked seven days of 12-hour sh ifts a nd then h ad seven days off. The ri g ran 24 hours a day . As the men ci rcled around m e, someone mentioned

    tha t oh, by the way , theres no medic on board, so dont get hur t. Its a l ong wait for th e heli copter. Y ou got any gl oves, or wh at? an other asked. It was a

    warm autu mn day in Texas, and I had no gloves.

    I made my wa y down to the rig fl oor, where the dri lli ng was done. It was a can til evered platform, and I stood between the l egs of the derrick to watch as

    thr ee rough necks worked the pipe that extends the dril l bit down past 13 fathoms (78 feet) of water to where it ch ews through th e seafloor. This ri g ha d

    stru ck a pocket of natu ral gas, and the crew was now pul li ng u p the sections of pipe that formed the shaft of the dril li ng mech ani sm. A 35,000-poun d

    yellow steel block and tackle (call ed the eleva tor jaws) was li ftin g length s of pipe out of a hole in th e platform floor. The rough necks danced around it,

    three ordinary young men who might h ave been mistaken for fraternity brothers if they hadnt been covered with oil and mu d, and if their big eyes

    ha dnt made them look li ke ponies tra pped in a f ire.

    They worked at a rapid pace, the way football play ers run scrimmag eonly the roughnecks were playi ng a gainst steel and with out pads. Everything

    was moving i n different dir ections at once: The platform sway ed back and forth wi th the win d and the force of the waves agai nst the ri g. The elevator

    jaws, which the winch man raised and lowered, were always turni ng, swinging, a nd makin g lengthy excursions up and down the cables. When the

    rough necks clam ped a section of pipe in the jaws, it was whisked hig h in to the air . The derrickm an, teetering on a platform ten stories above us, ha d to

    la sso the pipe with a pi ece of rope and steady i t. The men pu t steel shim s around th e rest of it so that it woul dnt slip down the h ole into the sea.

    Each ti me the elevator jaws pulled, a section of pipe about 90 feet tall was set free. It came ali ve, wriggl in g wildl y in th e air. It was the derri ckman s job

    to wrestle on hi gh with this piece of undul ating steel, and all.

    He had to work with was a gr easy piece of hemp rope. As he hau led on h is rope, the pipe strugg led and whi pped away , and I watched as he lean ed way out

    over the edge of hi s littl e perch. For a moment I thought th at the metal whi p made by the pipe was going to flick hi m in to the sha rk-in fested sea. But the

    derrickm an was a t one with th e kinetic energy of the pipe. He wasnt figh ting th e pipe. He was gentlin g it over, over, the way a fi sherm an pla ys the

    fighti ng bil lfish with a piece of string. A nd when the propitious moment came, he reeled in his rope and the pipe was landed and clam ped securely off to

    one side in i ts rack.

    A fellow named Dave came to watch with m e. He had advanced up the la dder from roughneck to rig mechanic. I noticed that h e was missin g a finger on

    hi s righ t han d, and I asked how hed lost it. He laug hed softly to him self and cut h is eyes in th e direction of the elevator jaws. Doing somethin g just

    about li ke that there, he said. Occasionall y the ma mmoth shafts of metal came clangi ng together in an u nhappy way to remind us th at feet and

    fingers, arms an d legs and skulls were always in play, as i f these men cast dice, betting with th eir livi ng bones.

    And those are just the ha zards to the indiv idua l who loses his focus. The rig is v ul nerabl e as well. A pocket of gas could cau se the well to blow out and set

    the whole thi ng on fir e. I was told that if th at h appened, wed hav e four m inu tes to get off before the steel began to melt.

    Everyone on the rig was either paying attention in an al most superhu man way or heading for a very bad accident. I learned this as I was takin g notes.

    Several m en were standing n earby an d I noticed them watchin g me, as if I were some sort of curi osity in th eir otherwise routine day. There was a subtle

    fli ck of their eyes as they wa tched, and I felt the ha ir stan d up on my n eckwhat were they lookin g at? I tur ned around just in ti me to see a cran eload of

    pipe moving sl owly bu t impl acably toward my hea d. I stepped aside as the four-ton rack whooshed past and was set on the floor.

    I looked back at the men. They werent lau ghi ng, but one of them gl anced at me in a peculi ar way , with a li ttle smi le. I un derstood at tha t moment how

    truly different their way s of paying attention were. Nothing escaped their v igil ancea shift in the wind, a chance remark, the tinkl ing of machi nery, a

    sudden odor from somewherebecause all of those thi ngs could sign al th e begin nin g of the end, and the man who noticed what was going on first was

    most likely to survive.

    As I left the rig on a helicopter, I wondered if i t was as dangerous a s the monstrous m achin ery and tal es of gri sly a ccidents made it a ppear. Am azingl y,

    the stati stics seem to show that our su pposedly safe world is actu all y more dangerous tha n an oil rig . In the years between 2003 and 2005, oil a nd gas

    workers were ki lled a t a r ate of 30 per 100,000. Accordin g to the Centers for Disease Control a nd Prev ention, the n ational avera ge ra te for accidental

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    death am ong the general popula tion is 39.6 per 100,000, makin g accidents th e top cause of death am ong people under the ag e of 45. Not surprisi ngl y,

    driv ing i s to blam e for the bul k of these accidents.

    When the h azards we face are obvious, paying a ttention becomes a cul tural norm. Everything on tha t oil rig was an obvious test, a clear threat, and

    therefore each m an was workin g ha rd every moment for his own surv iva l. Those who didnt paid the price. For the rest of us, the ha zards are stil l there.

    Theyre just hi dden. A nd that can sometimes be more dangerous th an the most seeming ly hazardous environment.

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