1982 Ocean Ranger

Authored by Joe Scanlon

On February 15, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The 84 men on board made desperate attempts to escape and some did make it to a lifeboat, but given the blowing snow, high winds and waves more than 15 metres high, it proved impossible to launch some life rafts or inflate others. A US Coast guard report – Ocean Ranger was an American flag vessel even though it was staffed mainly by Canadians – described the problem:

Lifeboat Number 1 would not release and was damaged when the waves threw the boat against the platform. Lifeboat Number 2 could not be used because of the list of the platform. Lifeboat Number 3 would not completely release and was also severely damaged when it was thrown against the platform by the waves. Lifeboat Number 4 was lowered and crushed against the platform. In the case of Lifeboat Number 5 numerous crew members declined to enter the boat because they feared it would be crushed against the platform. This boat capsized when the platform sank and was subsequently righted by a crew member who swam to the boat.

Many men were sighted floating in the sea after the Ocean Ranger was abandoned. While some may have entered the water as a consequence of a lifeboat capsizing, others may have entered as a consequence of either an unsuccessful lifeboat launching or they may have simply chosen to jump into the water rather than utilize the davit launched lifeboats. The rescue efforts made by the crews of the three standby boats failed to save any of these men. The recovery techniques, which failed, included the use of ring lifebuoys, the deployment of rafts and the use of grappling hooks. At times the victims were endangered by the propellers of the standby boats.

After receiving Ocean Ranger’s “mayday” distress signals, the Canadian Coast Guard sequestered all ships in the vicinity to respond. It also arranged for helicopters and an Aurora to fly to the scene in the morning. Conditions were much too bad for the helicopters to fly during the night and so bad that the Aurora was needed to monitor the helicopters to prevent their colliding. One supply ship came close to a lifeboat carrying eight or nine survivors but the weather prevented them from rescuing those men and the lifeboat capsized while the rescue ship was alongside. Though the men hung on to their boat briefly, those men, along with every else on board, eventually died. Autopsies showed that all those whose bodies were recovered died of hypothermia.

The log of Seaforth Highlander tells just how difficult the conditions were :

Lifeboat steams across the stern. Stays alongside port quarter…. Lifeboat capsizes to port. Lines part. 8 or 9 men in water cling to boat which remains capsized…. Numerous bodies sighted – no sign of life – bodies floating head down in the water. Attempts to retrieve another body. Conditions too severe – body comes out of life jacket and sinks. Another, and the only one, body observed to be wearing orange survival suit. Attempts to retrieve body. Life jacket comes off – body sinks.

Capt. Mike Clarke, pilot of a search and rescue helicopter from Gander, described the dangerous conditions in which a man was lowered in a howling gale to try to retrieve the first man they saw, who was already dead. Search and rescue technician Master Corporal Randy Brown was lowered from a 24-metre cable in freezing temperatures and high winds, but was hauled back into the aircraft on his lifeline from the 40-foot (12 metre) seas. Wind-driven snow and waves estimated at 16 metres made the effort futile. Brown made the day’s only airborne attempt to recover a body.

The Royal Commission of the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster describes the horrendous conditions under which rescue efforts were made:

When a helicopter landed for re-fueling on another rig it took off again very soon because that rig was pitching so much in the heavy seas, the helicopter crew was becoming seasick….We spent some time vectoring the resupply vessels to the bodies and empty life rafts however this was abandoned when it became clear the ships themselves were having a difficult time just surviving and for a seaman to come out on deck would be suicide…. Once over the search area, steady winds of 75 knots (139 kilometres) and very heavy seas made searching difficult and, when bodies were spotted, recovery of them was impossible…. It was evident from the condition of destroyed fibreglass lifeboats and partially inflated life rafts that little time was afforded the crew of the rig to abandon her.

A shot taken when the Ocean Ranger was in Alaska.

The US firm that owned the rig, Odeco, closed its doors and declined comment on advice from counsel. However, W. O. Mason, the president of the operating company Mobil, flew in immediately from Calgary and told a news conference just how bad things were: “The Ocean Ranger is lost. I cannot hold out much hope for survivors.” During the night, while he was en route, the company’s public affairs officer called the president of Newfoundland Telephone telling him phones were urgently needed. Then she set up two call centres: one for calls to and from families of those on board, and one for media. Mobil also advised the 13 contractors that had staff on board to notify their employees’ families. While some contractors had excellent personnel records and immediately contacted all their employees’ families, others did not. Some of the less skilled employees lived in boarding houses: often their employer had a name but no address. However, most families soon knew — either by phone calls from an employer or through media reports — that something had gone terribly wrong at Ocean Ranger. Even though hospitals in St. John’s were ready to receive casualties it was pretty clear none would be coming.

Staff at the provincial Petroleum Directorate was also worried about next-of-kin. They wanted them to know of the government’s concern so one of their staff made contact with clergy, asking that someone be approved to come to the family call centre at Atlantic Place, the building where Mobil’s offices were located. The various churches all agreed to cooperate but by the time the clergy arrived, the building had become an operations centre filled with police and oil company employees called in during the night, while security guards controlled access. The arriving clergy had to identify themselves and receive clearance before they could go upstairs to the now fully-equipped call centre.

In the cases of poor records, there was often nothing more to work with than a list of names and a few addresses. Clergy tried to determine from surnames the most likely religious affiliation of each person. The historic settlement patterns of the original settlers, principally from England, Ireland and Scotland, and relative isolation of Newfoundland communities, meant that it was possible to link a surname and a religion fairly accurately, often with a region. Within a couple of hours, each name had been assigned to one of five categories: Roman Catholic, Anglican, United Church, non-residents and ‘other’, the latter being the responsibility of the Salvation Army representative.

One of the things that astounded me was that they had the names but I don’t know why they didn’t have the homes of these people. A bunch of emergency clergy – they have a call out – Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian – and I was astounded. I will never forget how these men would hear the names and tell the community they came from and I don’t think they were ever wrong and it was amazing. They really helped out down there and I learned at a young age how important it is to have the right people around you.

In Newfoundland, where many small communities have no police, it is traditional for clergy to give news of a death to the next of kin. For the next week or 10 days, the clergy would either call next-of-kin or take the calls when these came in. Some people weren’t interested in talking. Others were heart-broken and remained on the line for 45 minutes to an hour. Some called back repeatedly. Others waited for further news. All the clergy were careful to give out only facts. Initially they would only say that Ocean Ranger had gone down and that so far there were no known survivors. “We are not saying there are no survivors. We are only saying we have no information of any survivors at this time.”

At first the various clergy handled any call that came in and called whomever they were assigned, regardless of religious affiliation. After a few days, however, the names were exchanged so that a Roman Catholic priest talked to Roman Catholics, the Anglican priest to Anglicans and so on. The clergy did not go to Pier 17 (where the bodies were arriving) because they would not have been able to identify the victims. They did, however, attend some of the autopsies. When answering calls, they tried to be as forthcoming as possible but gave out only facts and did not speculate. They admitted when they could not answer a question. And they told no one — neither the families nor the media — that some men had escaped only to drown after almost being rescued. Mobil’s director of public affairs did exactly the same with the media. The terrible weather and the lack of specific information meant there were many rumours but Mobil stuck to what it could confirm.

Soon, however, the media began to track down the victims’ families. Lorna Ryan, whose husband Denis was head steward on Ocean Ranger:

The day started with a call from Denis’ family in Newfoundland reporting “no news yet” then with an avalanche of calls from reporters for newspapers and television stations as far away as Toronto. Most wanted to visit us immediately for personal interviews and to collect photographs of us all and the more enterprising ones just arrived on our doorstep on speculation.

The phone rang every few minutes and I did my best to answer all questions, but I refused all pictures and most personal interviews. All the media people were extremely kind, and very apologetic about intruding at such a time so I didn’t resent them. I realized it was a news event and it was their job to cover it, but the sheer volume of calls began to upset me more and more….

Denis Ryan’s body was not recovered. The same thing happened at the Toronto area home of Scotty Morrison, an NHL official:

I was worried and upset about my family and at one point I had to phone the public relations people in my organization about the press and media. It seemed that the driveway of my house as inundated with TV cameras, newspaper people and radio…. On the whole I found the press and media respectful of our privacy. I noticed they kept a respectful distance at the memorial service at the Basilica in St John’s and I thought they did a good job.

Morrison did agree to speak to the media in St. John’s:

The media hounded families once the names were out. The families did not want to deal with this. All the media wanted was access to a human interest story. When he (Morrison) offered to speak on behalf of the families, he took the pressure off all the other families.

The body of Morrison’s son, James, was also not recovered.

At first much of the media pressure came from outside as reporters from central Canada and the United States and overseas phoned. Then journalists from the American networks and from magazines like Life and Paris Match began to arrive. News conferences, which at first attracted 20 to 30 local media personnel, swelled as the out-of-town media arrived. But even when officials “knew” no one had survived, they were reluctant to say so. Nevertheless one company spokesperson was upset when he realized the CBC cameraman at a news conference was the father one of the men on board. He asked a CBC editor: “What the hell is (he) doing here? You need to send him home. You should tell him to go home to his wife. This is no place for a parent.”

Eventually the various ships recovered 22 bodies and brought them into Pier 17 in St. John’s harbour where the provincial works department had set up a morgue. The supply boats tied up at the dock and police unloaded the bodies while trying to keep the faces covered to prevent someone watching from making a premature identification. In the high wind and blowing snow they were not always successful. When the covering blew off the face of the first body to be unloaded, a policeman watching recognized a school friend.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary kept the media away from Pier 17 and tried their best to prevent anyone from taking pictures of bodies. It was not easy and there were many media complaints at the restrictions. Photographers and camera persons climbed Signal Hill, which towers over the narrow harbour entrance, in an attempt to get visuals of bodies laid out on the decks of the supply ships. Other media threatened police with complaints to the federal Department of External Affairs about the restrictions on access, which the police ignored. They were sure that the local people would appreciate the controls.

Although works employees had created small cubicles, delineated with curtains made of sheets, where bodies could be placed individually, bodies were initially kept in the main part of the pier warehouse where attempts were made to identify them. Royal Canadian Mounted Police, assisted by Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, photographed all of the bodies and took fingerprints. However, enough was found on each body to clearly identify it so that neither the photos nor fingerprints were used. Although some bodies were slightly disfigured, most were in good condition, preserved by the cold Atlantic waters. Some bodies were identified because they had a wallet or a ring or a distinctive tattoo. Usually someone related to the deceased but not from the immediate family came to see if they recognized someone — a cousin or uncle, perhaps.

Finally, a man who had worked on Ocean Ranger and knew everyone on board looked at all the bodies. He tentatively identified the final two bodies that had not previously been identified. To verify his identifications, an employee of the Petroleum Directorate arranged to have coffee with a representative from each of the last two families. During their conversation, he pulled out a medal or a watch taken from the body and in each case they told him immediately that they recognized it. Of the 22 bodies recovered, 16 came from Newfoundland. Others came from Alberta (2), Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina and Connecticut.

Global News photo of the research ship Hudson and its crew unloading the body of an Ocean Ranger victim.

During the same storm, a nearby Russian trawler, Mekhanik Tarasov, had also sunk and bodies from it were also recovered and brought to Pier 17. Most of the Tarasov‘s crew had a distinct appearance and appeared nothing like the men from Ocean Ranger. But one was tall, blond and lanky. Concerned that an Ocean Ranger body might have been mixed up with a Russian body, the Constabulary arranged for persons from Ocean Ranger contractors to come to Pier 17 and view the Russian bodies. About 20 of them showed up and they were led, single file, past the Russian bodies. All but one said that none of the bodies worked for their company. However, one company representative thought it possible that he recognized one but he wasn’t sure. Finally he said, “No,” and left. But remaining uncertain, he later called back and asked to go again, and even later called for a third visit.

He wasn’t sure. I took him to the morgue that night three times and he was immensely tormented. “I don’t want anyone of my families,” he said, “to discover their son’s body had gone to Russia.”

The Russians were also photographed and fingerprinted but the identities of the dead Russians were not established. It was deemed sufficient that they were all identified as belonging to the Tarasov. The Russian consul invited those at the morgue to a cocktail party, explaining it was a traditional way of remembering those who died.

It is not uncommon for bodies to be stored in refrigerated trucks and this possibility was considered in St. John’s. However, orders came down from Attorney General Gerald Ottenheimer that this was not to happen. All bodies would be moved either in an ambulance or, if one was not available, a hearse, and one body would be moved at a time. The stipulated vehicles transported the bodies, once they had been identified, to the Health Science complex where Pathologist Eric Pike performed an autopsy to establish cause of death. While he was working on a body, the families were notified to come to the complex and social workers stood by to talk to them. After Dr. Pike explained that their loved one had died of hypothermia, the body was released to the family.

Once the bodies were released, the families placed obituary notices in the local newspapers and arranged for funerals. As the obituaries show, most of those on board were young men, often with young families:

George Augot, age 29 years of Torbay. Leaving to mourn his loving wife Louise, two daughters: Vickie, age 4, and Jenny Lee, 9 months.

Wade A. Brinston, age 25 years. Leaving to mourn his wife, Rosella; one son, Jonathon; one daughter, Lesley.

Douglass Putt, age 33. Leaving to mourn his loving wife Ann (Finn); two sons: Sean and Jeffrey; one daughter, Tina.

Gerald Clarke aged 33 years. Leaving to mourn his wife Pauline (Drake); one son, Jason; one daughter, Crista.

Sixty-two of the 84 bodies were not recovered and some relatives were convinced their loved ones might have sheltered in the rig’s diving bell. That hope was dashed when the rig was briefly recovered and a search showed no bodies on board. Although the rig had been examined while still underwater for the formal inquiry, it was considered too dangerous for anyone to try and enter it. However, when a European company won the contract to recover it, its staff tried to force their way in. Two divers died as a result and one more died before the recovery operation ended. Long before these recovery efforts — in fact a little more than a month after the incident — the US Coast Guard issued formal certificates of presumption of death to the relatives of the 62 men whose bodies had not been recovered:

The Marine Board of Investigation convened by the Commandant of the United States Coast Guard to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the capsizing and sinking of the MOBIL OFFSHORE DRILLING UNIT OCEAN RANGER, O.N. 615641, in the Atlantic Ocean on 15 February, 1982, took testimony on 22 March, 1982, concerning the identity of all crew members and personnel on OCEAN RANGER at the time of the casualty. In consideration of the evidence available to the Board at this time, the Board finds that [NAME] born [DATE] was on board OCEAN RANGER at the time of the casualty and is missing presumed to be dead. B. T. Bloomquist, Captain, U.S. Coast Guard, Member and Recorder, Marine Board of Investigation.

The release, which officially established someone as dead, was issued five weeks after Ocean Ranger capsized. For those issued this certificate, there will always be a void:

It is worth noting how important it was to the families to find the bodies. As with most people, Newfoundlanders refuse to fully accept the reality of death at sea until the body has been found. That is part of the continuing “trauma” that many of the families are still suffering….

I think it was more reassuring to me to know that his body was found. It gave me more satisfaction than wondering if he was alive or dead or God knows what happened to him, and I was very happy that his body was found not to have any terrible marks, cuts, or scars. I think he was in St. John’s on Friday and my Uncle Neil went down to identify the body. I wanted to go and identify the body, but Neil figured as he was in St. John’s anyway it was unnecessary. I believe Grandfather went in too that weekend.

Concerned that some families might sign away their rights while they were still in shock, Ottenheimer warned that it “was possible within the next few days that relatives and next of kin may be contacted by certain persons asking them to sign some form of waiver or to settle a possible claim resulting from the lost [sic] of life on the Ocean Ranger. While such a choice is a personal one and it is not my intention to interfere with it, I should point out that the long-term interests of the relatives and next of kin might best be protected be refusing to enter any agreement without securing first full professional advice from persons resident in the province.”

The province asked that each family appoint one person as its representative. All official communications went through that person. This worked except where there was a family split, perhaps a divorce. A number of those who died were living with a partner in a relationship some families saw as sinful, and most victims had listed their parents rather than their partners as next of kin. The partners had no legal claim to counselling or insurance or anything else. In at least one case, the family flatly refused to acknowledge a relationship, going so far as to deny the victim’s child.

While the situation in common law was less vague and offered some recognition and help, such was not the case for others who had no legally recognized relationship or status but who were in fact deeply involved and sometimes very dependent. In at least two instances involving children born outside marriage subsequent to the Ranger sinking, complications arose relating either to proof of paternity or to provisions of the Workmen’s Compensation Act and common law legislation.

Some firms cared for the families of their lost employees. For example, Hydrospace Marine Services, whose diving system was installed on the Ocean Ranger and who lost five divers in the tragedy, paid for family members to come to St. John’s and ensured that they all received significant severance pay. But one company, which had 12 catering staff on Ocean Ranger, simply closed up shop. As a result, the situation for some women partners became desperate. They had no income. They had to go to local food banks for food. The pastor of one church was horrified when he learned that some had power to their homes cut because they had not paid their bills. He and members of his congregation stepped in and provided support.

By then, there was another group involved. The churches in St. John’s had decided something needed to be done to prepare for the impact of off-shore oil development and they formed an ecumenical committee, the Inter-Church Commission on Resource Development, headed by an Anglican priest and a Roman Catholic nun. The nun had specifically been assigned by the Archdiocese to the office of social action to focus on the implications to the community and to families of off shore development. This group anticipated later research conducted by Keith Storey and others (1986) at Memorial University, as summarized by Douglas House:

Having a husband/father or wife/mother working away from home for anywhere from two to four weeks at a time can have negative impacts on family life. This so-called intermittent spouse syndrome typifies work patterns in the offshore oil and gas industry. Research has shown that this pattern increases anxiety levels for many women and their children while the husband/father is in transit and working offshore, and it creates adjustment difficulties for both the women who have to alternate between being single head of the household and supportive spouse in alternating cycles, and the men who have to adjust back and forth between life on the rig and life a home.

Shortly after the Ocean Ranger was lost, some people in St. John’s and the sister who was co-chair of the commission were contacted by a Norwegian action group formed after the Alexander Kielland rig capsized on March 27, 1980 with a loss of 123 persons. This contact led to a meeting, to which victims’ families were invited. While invitations only reached some families, word of what was planned spread and the response was immediate and positive, leading to the creation of the Ocean Rangers Families Foundation:

We received a letter from the Inter-Church Commission signed by Reverend Ralph Billard. They had set up a meeting and invited a many families as possible to attend. Up to that time, I only knew two of the families involved. We went to the meeting and there was a good turnout. A lot of families met each other for the first time. There was a lot of crying and a lot of sad stories told. I think the formation of the Ocean Ranger Families Foundation was something positive that came out of the tragedy for the families. It was a tremendous help for us in the aftermath of the disaster as we all shared a common interest…. We could relate to each other very easily even though we were practically strangers. You could relate to them in a different way from your own family and friends; you could really bare your feelings with them.

Most of the women involved were very young; even the older ones were only in their early thirties:

I remember the very first people, one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I was invited to a meeting of the widows. They were kids. When I walked into the room, I was faced with a roomful of kids. That business of putting people in touch with each other and creating a safe haven where they could talk about themselves turned out to be very important.

The Foundation played another role: it provided a way for those involved in the offshore industry to voice complaints about what was going on:

We were the only group of people who asked questions and put the oil companies on the spot…. …got many brown envelopes from worker offshore who had stories to tell and did not want to be associated with them and we went to the press every time. At the time of Ocean Ranger being prepared (for a disaster) there was no consideration given to it.

But the foundation also became involved in a heated and public dispute with the local business community which, with the support of the Evening Telegram, had solicited donations to an Ocean Ranger fund. The Foundation had decided to support the families of the roughly 12 victims who had been on Ocean Ranger doing menial labour without any kind of insurance. The Foundation argued that money from the Ocean Ranger fund needed to go to these destitute women – and this needed to happen immediately. The committee managing the fund did not agree. Eventually the money was set aside for scholarships which could go to anyone:

In selecting candidates, preference will be given to the children and/or widows of those who were lost. In the absence of eligible candidates from this group, the scholarships and bursaries may be awarded to other students at the discretion of the Ocean Ranger Scholarship Committee.

Although the Foundation did not have financial resources at first, it was able to hire a staff member when the former premier, Joey Smallwood, called the federal Minister of Energy (and later, Prime Minister), Jean Chretien, who agreed to provide $75,000. The Foundation sent its co-chairing sister to US Coast Guard hearings in Louisiana and its members drafted a brief to the Canadian Royal Commission inquiring into what happened. The brief, signed by the sister, the staff member and one family member, called for improvements in safety regulations and inspection and suggested there was a need for better worker representation and, perhaps, a union. It also stressed the need for the families to be better informed about life on an oil rig:

In most hazardous occupations spouses, partners and families, in general know the hazards and risks involved and can play some constructive role in counselling and caution. Conversely they also need to know what it is they need not worry about. The experience of the Ocean Ranger families generally is that they did not worry at all because they did not know enough to be worried; or that they were worried sick every time their men went away on a hitch.

Many of these ideas had come originally from the Norwegian action group.

Some of those close to those who died found the inquiry traumatic. It was disturbing, for example, to learn that some men had managed to get into and launch a lifeboat, and that a supply ship was beside that boat when it capsized. It was more disturbing to learn that those involved in controlling the rig’s ballast had not even read the operating manual and that when the automatic systems failed they might have saved Ocean Ranger had they been properly trained. But the whole inquiry proved to be another way of grieving for others. There was a group of women who attended the inquiry religiously, despite harrowing testimony.

After the Ocean Ranger went down, a group of businessmen raised funds for a monument and commissioned Scottish-born Newfoundland A. Stewart Montgomerie to design it. Even two years after the incident, it remained difficult getting an accurate list of victims’ names. When a family from outside St. John’s came to see the monument, they reported their name was not spelled correctly. The plaque was corrected. It now lists all 84 names correctly, as far as is known.

Four days after Ocean Ranger was lost, an ecumenical service was held at the Roman Catholic Basilica as the city and province held an official day of mourning. The church was packed as those present sang the hymn, “External Father Strong to Save,” usually remembered by its last line, “For those in peril on the sea.” One year after the incident, Gonzaga, at that time a Roman Catholic school, decided to have a memorial service to remember five of its former students: Paul Bursey, Craig Tilley, Gerald Power, Greg Hickey and Albert Howell. It was held at Pius X church. That annual remembrance has continued and now, as well as being ecumenical, attracts more and more people, including clerics from faiths whose members were not on Ocean Ranger and were not originally involved. The names of all those who died are read out and a candle is lit for each victim. Some students are invited to read reflections they have written about the meaning of Ocean Ranger. After the service ends, the families present are given their candle and a flower and many go to the Confederation Building to lay two wreaths, one from the families, and one from the Gonzaga Students’ Council. Memorial wreaths are also annually dropped into the Atlantic from drill platforms on that same day.


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2 responses to “1982 Ocean Ranger”

  1. Scott Gillis says:

    I find this very well written. As someone who had left the rig only 10 days earlier I have always been drawn to any information on the topic of the sinking. I am perplexed at the US Coast Guard report’s statement, “In the case of Lifeboat Number 5 numerous crew members declined to enter the boat because they feared it would be crushed against the platform. This boat capsized when the platform sank and was subsequently righted by a crew member who swam to the boat.” How would they be able to discern that – there were no survivors?

    • Heather Sparling says:

      It’s a good question, Scott. The Coast Guard’s report might have an answer or, if not, they might be asked the question. My colleague, Joe Scanlon (who has since passed away), wrote this account of the tragedy so I don’t have access to his sources. But my guess is that this information was gleaned during communications before the rig sank.

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