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Historic Pics of The Day: The ‘Unsinkable’ Oil Rig That Tragically Capsized

It was as if the world learned nothing from the sinking of the Titanic.

It was as if the world learned nothing from the sinking of the Titanic. In the 1970s the world’s largest offshore oil drilling rig was constructed in Japan and then shipped to the rough waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Called the Ocean Ranger, it was a marvel of modern technology, unlike any other rig in the biz and considered too mighty to succumb to even the most violent storms. But like the Titanic, a mix of human hubris, error and an unpredictable environment ultimately led to her sinking in the middle of the night.

Ocean Ranger was built in 1976 for the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company. At the time, she was the heaviest and biggest semi-submersible oil rig on the planet. The rig was designed to withstand wind speeds up to 100 knots and waves as high as 110 feet — all while drilling in water depths up to a whopping 25,000 feet.

The rig had drilled in Alaska and then off the coast of New Jersey before being moved to Canada where tragedy struck on Valentine’s Day 1982. That evening the crew of 84 men, most of whom worked for Exxon Mobil, received word that a massive storm was heading toward them. Then around 7 p.m. a rogue wave struck the rig and water crashed into the ballast control room through open port holes. The crew attempted to wash off electrical components drenched in sea water, but the controls still short circuited.

According to radio reports, several valves of the ballast opened due to the short circuit, which caused a severe list in the rig. The crew attempted to control the ballast valves manually but ultimately the worsening list caused the rig to capsize. After midnight the Ocean Ranger sent out a “mayday” call.

The human toll was the worst case scenario. Despite rescue attempts by a nearby vessel, the roaring storm and monster waves made it impossible to remove the crewmen from the sea and lifeboats. All 84 souls were lost.

Investigations by the Canadian and the U.S. government showed that faulty design of the ballast system and possible human error were at fault. A lack of safety training and an attitude that the rig was “unsinkable” also contributed to the disastrous chain of events.

Great images of the Ocean Ranger are hard to come by. But several movies have documented the tragedy, which was the third worst ocean rig disaster — in terms of human loss of life — in history.

For more, check out the History Channel's short documentary about Ocean Ranger.

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