Paralyzed by panic: Survivor recalls last minutes before oil rig capsized

Ambulances standby outside the offices of Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), owner of the sunken drilling platform Kolskaya (Reuters / Images)
A wave of panic gripped the rig after the crew understood the rescue helicopters were not coming recalled one of the survivors of an oil rig’s sinking that killed at least 14 people, with dozens more missing.

Having barely recovered after four hours in bitingly cold water, Sergey Grauman shed light on the event before the demise of the ill-fated oil rig.

On the day of the tragedy, Sergey Grauman, the 24-year-old rig employee was working on board with his father.

“We were caught in a heavy storm,” Grauman told the Lifenews online tabloid. “The rig was badly damaged by the wind, and the water was flooding the deck – despite our attempts to fix the leak. That’s when we sent out a mayday call.”

The young man recalled that the crew gathered in the rest room to wait for the rescue helicopters.

“We were informed that the helicopters were on their way, so at first there was no panic at all,” Grauman said. “The crew members divided into groups, so that it was easier for rescuers to evacuate us. Others were on deck preparing the lifeboats in case the rig was to capsize.”

Then, out of the blue, people started to leave the restroom, Grauman recalled.

“We asked what happened, and they told us there would be no rescue helicopters. That’s when the panic spread. All the people gathered on the deck – on the same side, and the tilt forced the rig to sink. It was like in a movie. People were climbing the deck hoping to jump into the water. Everyone was shouting.”

Later it was reported that the rescue helicopters could not approach the rig because of the harsh weather conditions.

“It took us eight hours to prepare for the mission, and two more to reach the rig,” said local navy chief, Boris Likhvan. “The visibility was very poor.”

Unable to grab hold of the sinking deck, Grauman was drawn into the bitingly cold water. He spent around four hours in it until the rescuers managed to come by.

“I tried to keep above the water. I understood that otherwise I wouldn’t be rescued,” Grauman said. “It wasn’t easy. The waves were very big. I saw many people floating around, but they were all dead. No one attempted to take them out – the rescuers were searching for those still alive.”

Once rescued, the young man was taken to the local hospital. He still does not know what happened to his father, who was not listed among those saved, and the bodies of those who died have not been identified.

Three lifeboats the rescuers found soon after at the scene were empty. One lifeboat remained unaccounted for by search and rescue teams, who held hopes it could be found with survivors on board. It was located on Monday, but was also empty.

The incident happened December 18, 200 kilometers off Sakhalin Island, as the Kolskaya rig was being towed by an icebreaker and a tug boat to Sakhalin Island after finishing its drill mission.

‘Rig crew sentenced to death from start’

While the investigation into the incident is ongoing, the relatives of the crew members blame the tragedy on the rig’s owners, who dared to use the equipment in harsh weather conditions.

“This rig shouldn’t have been exploited in winter time,” said the wife of Aleksandr Kozlov, the rig’s captain. “My husband tried to explain this to his bosses. When they refused to call off the trip, he attempted to resign, but ended up on board anyway.”

“They had no right to send 67 people there – the full crew,” added the wife of Mikhail Tersin, the rig’s security manager. “By making this decision, they signed a death sentence for all of those people. They saved money, and killed our sons and husbands. My husband was shouting out loud that this was murder. Then he said, ‘I’m 61, my kids have grown, why not me?’”

The rig’s owners claim that the platform had undergone all the necessary repairs before the mission was agreed. The weather forecast was also fine for the next five days.

“We have all the documents from two reputable control bodies – Russian and Norwegian – that confirm the rig was perfectly ready to float,” said the organization’s director general, Yury Melekhov. “The rig’s crew was well-trained and qualified for the trip, so there is no reason to question their actions. The accident is due to the circumstances no one could foresee.”