On Saturday afternoon I went down to 165 feet, on an inspection
dive that was supposed to last fifteen minutes. The pumping
station on the mainland had reported a loss of pressure and
wondered if our drilling activities might have damaged the
I was working for PetroCanada, a subsidiary
of the Canadian Petroleum Development Corporation, and had
been assigned for the last six months to Al-Qabisi, one of
the cantilevered jackups built by Marathon LeTorneau for
the National Drilling Company of Abu Dhabi, and later sold
to Libyan Oil.
PetroCanada was due to pull out by
the end of May, and I was anxious for the time to pass. The
company had agreed to Canadian demands to withdraw support
from Libya as part of a government deal to obtain free-trade
concessions from Washington. I was proud of the company.
We were pulling out well before the American corporations
with holdings on the mainland.
The triangular-shaped platform,
rising above lattice legs, was anchored in 150 feet of
water just off Libya and Tunisia, in the Gulf of Gabes.
We weren’t far from the islands
of Djerba, Ashtart, and Kerkennah, and I’d often thought
of our rig as one small island among many. To the north we
had the Italian island of Lampedusa, to the east Malta and
Gozo, and further north, off Cape Bon, Pantelleria.
The water was shallow enough for an experienced diver to
go down with scuba, but a nearby pipeline I was inspecting
dropped into a valley before leveling out near the coast,
so I went down with a Kirby-Morgan mask and an umbilical
cable with a phone line and diving hose hooked up to the
Before the dive even began I’d been apprehensive.
Jake, my tender, a Texan with the weathered face and inveterate
drawl of a seasoned cowboy, had broken his arm the day before
when the crane operator near our diving station had nodded
off and dropped an anchor the last ten feet to the platform.
The anchor’s fluke caught Jake near the elbow. He’d
been in a lot of pain before they flew him out, but he still
took the trouble to warn me.
“Derek, I’m tellin’ ya, buddy, watch out
for this guy.” He shook his head and a grimace twisted
one side of his face, deepening the creases. I wanted to
tell him not to worry, that everything would be okay, but
he grabbed my arm before I could speak and focused his steel
gray eyes on me.
I could see the pain there, and
for a moment he dropped his head to hide it and then looked
back up. “Next
thing ya know he’ll run the crane over the air hose
when you’re down under. I’d keep my eye on him
if I was you. You can’t trust these fucking Arabs anymore.”
I nodded. I’d never heard Jake swear before. He was
as religious a man as I’d ever met. But I shared his
sentiment. Even though I’m Canadian, I hadn’t
felt safe since we’d heard the U.S. 48th Tactical Fighter
Wing had bombed Libyan targets two weeks earlier. We knew
something big was up before it ever hit Radio Malta, our
preferred English-language station, broadcasting strong at
93.7 MHz VHF/FM.
We’d been awakened by the
F-111s screaming over us at two hundred feet on their final
approach to their targets. From where we sat, you could
just see the light of the explosions near Tripoli and catch
the far-off, thunderlike rumble of the anti-aircraft guns
that continued to boom for hours.
Since then, the few foreigners
on the jackup had been tense. The Italians didn’t seem to mind, but most of the Canadians
were jumpy. I’d told Jake I was planning on leaving
as soon as my next break came, which was about when we had
to pull out anyway. At the time, Jake had been noncommittal;
he’d even hinted he might stay on.
Now, with his injury, I guessed
everything had changed for him. “Jake,” I said, “you were pretty damn
smart. Made me think you wanted to stay and then got yourself
a private flight out of here.” He tried to grin, his
eyes hooded. “I’ll trade this busted elbow with
ya, if you’re in a hurry, pal.”
I laughed and patted him on the
be okay, Jake. You just worry about yourself now.”
He nodded, closed his eyes for
a moment, and then said in a soft voice, “Good luck
to you and Wanda.”
“Thanks, Jake.” I sensed the longing in his
voice and felt lucky. Wanda was my wife. Jake had been my
best man at the wedding five months earlier. It wasn’t
until then that I learned he had hopes of someday marrying
a girl back in Houston. Once he had enough money, I knew
he’d say good-bye to foreign operations and go back
home where he belonged. But now it was just too hard to find
work in the Gulf of Mexico.
On the incoming flight that Friday
evening after the accident—in
one of the company’s new Westland/Aerospatiale Pumas—they
sent a tender to replace Jake, a tall, blond-haired, muscular
kid barely in his twenties. One of those body-beautiful California
types, first time on a rig and, as my granddad back at Moose
Jaw would’ve said, green as elk piss. Saturday, when
the kid and I started going over the check sheet, right off
we had problems. Communication problems. I felt like the
father I’d never wanted to be.
I told him, “You see this air hose? It’s laid
so the crane operator can’t run over it. But he can
always drop a load on it. Or on you. Keep your eyes on the
The kid shrugged. “Don’t
worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
It was me I was worried about, not him.
“You familiar with the
He stared at me for ten seconds,
his jaw wired shut. When his nod came, you’d have
thought he was balancing a jug on his head. His head gave
one of those almost imperceptible twitches you measure
with millimeters. The Galeazzi decompression chamber sat
just behind the diving station, which was near the northwestern
leg of the jackup.
I’d given the kid a tour
of the rig before the dive. Between us and the opposite
leg to the east with its matching crane, sat the shaker
tank, drawworks, and rising above all, the derrick. To
the south, just beyond the racking platform, were the crew
quarters and above them the control room. The kid had arrived
on the helipad, which jutted out from the platform deck
to the east of the crew quarters.
“I don’t want any slack on the air hose when
I’m down,” I said. “Got that? And keep
the hose at an angle at least four meters from the down line.” I
hoped the kid understood metric and then thought I’d
better make sure. “No closer than twelve feet.”
I pointed at his chest. “We
nearly lost a diver once. His tender let him spiral around
the down line.”
“You want me to dive for you?” he
I didn’t like his tone and was about to tell him so,
when I managed to restrain myself. I didn’t want to
anger the guy who’d be tending my air hose.
I handed him my log. “Decompression tables are in
the back. Keep good track of the times and depths. I want
to stay out of the chamber if I can.” I pointed to
the hang-off bar. I’d made it myself from a two-foot
length of 3-inch pipe. Welded a U-bolt from a cable clip
to the middle for the line. It was simple but saved a lot
of energy during ascent. Depending on my down time, I figured
I’d have several decompression stops and a total ascent
time of close to an hour. It’d be nice to have something
to sit on.
“When you figure out the
stops, send that down.”
He nodded curtly.
While he hooked me up, I warned
him of a few other hazards. He started saying, “No problem, man,” to everything.
If he’d had dreadlocks, I’d have thought he was
Jamaican. By the time I was ready to go neither of us was
I started out carrying a reserve two-tank pack that I tied
off at one hundred feet for a dive on scuba I planned on
taking later that day. I was thinking ahead and feeling good
Ten minutes into the dive, I
was at the site, engrossed in tracing a crack in the pipeline.
The break was more extensive than I’d thought. It ran over twenty feet, half the
length of a pipe joint, and ended up near a crossover line.
Part of the weight coat, a shell of concrete laid over the
pipe to neutralize its buoyancy, had fallen away, and the
dope coat was badly scraped. We’d have to wire-brush
the area and seal it with Splash Zone.
It didn’t much matter but
it looked like the trench had settled due to our drilling
nearby. Nothing I could do about that. Repair the line
and hope for the best.
The job was going to require
a saturation dive, and I was estimating the welder’s time and needs when a nagging
pain at the back of my head became a full-fledged headache
I couldn’t ignore. And then I noticed the air. A strange
“Bad air,” I screamed into the phone. “Get
me up!” I jerked the air hose four times and reached
for my weight belt.
Before I could find the quick release buckle, an up-welling
of nausea overcame me and I doubled up in pain. My mask banged
against the pipe, the blow disorienting me.
Still no pull on the air hose.
What’n hell was the
tender doing? He should’ve been hauling me up hand
over hand by now. Was the hose fouled up? Had I circled the
jackup’s leg going down?
I was on the verge of blacking
out and I started to panic. The weight belt slid from my
hand and caught on one of my fins. I’d been too dizzy
to drop it far enough from my body. I thought I started
screaming then, but it may have been only in my head, a
bad dream that soon faded into a silent fog.
I woke up at the diver’s station when they hooked
me up to some pure oxygen. Then they rushed me to the decompression
chamber, where I lay in a daze trying to analyze what had
really happened. The tender’s embarrassed explanation
was the last thing I remembered, his words swirling down
my eardrums like a whirlpool of vertigo. Something about
a galley hand sloshing an ammonia-saturated platform wash
around the compressor; about how the hose got tangled with
a broken cable from an anchor winch.
What in hell was a galley hand
doing near our station? And where in the hell had the dogman
for the crane operator been? He should’ve kept the
anchor cable clear.
First Jake, injured by an incompetent
crane operator, and now me. I lay there, trying to stay
awake like you’re
supposed to in the chamber, wondering what the next disaster
After a while, I started thinking
about Wanda. We were an unusual couple, an Italian and
a Canadian, a cultural attaché and
a commercial diver.
I’m probably the only commercial oil-field diver who
met his wife at a reception for an ambassador, in my case
the new Italian ambassador to Tripoli. I was present as a
company representative, albeit reluctantly. It wasn’t
my idea of a fun time.
A functionary of the Italian
Cultural Mission to Libya accompanied the ambassador—Wanda Donati. I learned later that her
distinctly American forename was chosen by her parents in
the period when Italians, like Americans, were enamored of
foreign names. Two of the Italian favorites were Walter and
Wanda. I don’t think I ever met a Wanda in Canada or
the U.S. But there was one in Tripoli, a dark-haired beauty
with bangs cut just above her eyes, a pert nose, cheeks that
looked as if skimmed by the first rosy blush of a ripening
peach, and lips that were luminous.
She laughed when I asked her
when she celebrated her giorno onomastico. Was there a
Saint’s Day for Wanda?
She was a natural beauty, best
of all unselfconsciously so, a young woman who didn’t
need makeup. Her inner contentment shone on her face. And
her cheerfulness, I soon learned, was not a social grace;
it too came naturally.
I found her joie de vivre contagious,
and she must have seen something attractive in me. She
said later that I stood out from the rest. I said it was
because I didn’t belong
there; she said it was because I wasn’t affected by
snobismo. It’s pretty hard to be a snob when you’re
a hired hand among aristocrats. At the time, I was making
over forty thousand American dollars a year, nearly sixty
thousand Canadian, but next to these folks I was white trash,
as Jake would have put it.
I’d lasted just over forty-four
years as a bachelor and I was married within a month of
When I’d mentioned the possibility of her coming out
to the rig on her vacation, she’d been delighted. We
finagled her on as a kitchen hand. I told her jokingly that
not every woman had a chance to go from a cultural attaché to
a cook’s assistant. I could see she didn’t mind.
She wanted us to be together more than anything. Even though
absences made our reunions that much more sensually intense,
both of us were tired of our desperate passion. We’d
been married barely five months and of those five had probably
spent only two together. We were devouring each other too
frantically. We wanted time to get used to each other. To
become friends as well as lovers.
About then the kid told me my
time was up. I climbed out of the chamber, thought about
lecturing him so he’d
learn something from the accident, and decided I was too
tired to go through the hassle. A wave of exhaustion washed
over me at the thought. Save it for tomorrow. He had enough
to do now, and I needed sleep more than an angry confrontation.
I asked the kid to clean up the chamber and was getting
ready to telephone Wanda when suddenly my stomach dropped
like a quick dip in the highway. Before I could move, the
platform shuddered violently. A ripple surged up the legs
and flowed over the platform surface, followed by the whining
of metal under strain.
A moment of eerie silence, seconds long.
And then a muted concussion and
a slow vibration that rapidly increased in intensity. My
eyes opened wide. No more than ten seconds had passed from
the initial dip. No doubt about it—that was a blast.
A gigantic blast!
“Underwater explosion!” I screamed. “Hang
Almost instantly, a geyser shot up near the jacket, drenching
us with its spray.
Shit! The leg was collapsing! I grabbed the tender for support,
my nausea upwelling again as the platform swayed. The steel
beams supporting the hull were snapping like metallic buttons.
As the platform began to tip slowly, the kid yelled in panic,
jerked from my grasp, and took off running toward the racking
platform in the center of the tripod.
I was struggling to overcome
the sickening sensation, when a series of explosions rocked
the platform near the shale shaker. The concussion slammed
me against a railing and I fell to my knees, the wind knocked
out of me. I looked back to where the shaker tank had stood.
Fragments of scorched metal drifted through the air below
a black cloud that rapidly billowed upward. If fire spread
from the tank, the bottle racks would go next. I didn’t
want to be near when that happened.
I gasped for a breath of air and took off in the direction
of the crew quarters, running at a slant up the platform,
which was tilting at a crazy angle.
Either the hull would rip off
near our leg or the pressure would snap the other legs
and everybody’d be lost.
I heard another explosion and
then a terrible shriek of metal under strain. I turned
just in time to see the derrick start its slow, awkward
topple. I had a sickening vision of the derrick man, a
Canadian national I’d talked
to once or twice. He’d be at the fourble board, some
ninety feet above the derrick floor. Seconds later, the derrick
picked up momentum and thundered down, hitting the control
room and crashing on the racking platform. The hull of the
platform bent like a trampoline, surged up and then down,
and then vibrated with palsy.
I could hear screams from the direction of the doghouse
now. Sheets of orange fire rose in waves, crinkled at the
edges, and turned black. A cloud of toxic gas from the underwater
explosion wafted over the edge of the platform, burning my
How could I have been so stupid—bringing
Wanda out here?
I couldn’t blame the new tender for this. I’d
bent company rules to do it.
As I approached the crew quarters, I could see fire. An
off-duty derrick man rushed by me, his face blackened with
soot. He was trying to get to the drawworks to rescue his
friends, and I was heading the other way to rescue Wanda.
A Libyan roustabout appeared
at the door of a storage shed. His eyes were wild and I
saw a Russian-made submachine gun in his hand. He was shouting
in Arabic, the closest equivalent something like, “Death
to the American bastards! The camel-sucking CIA! Attack!”
I tried to shout back in Arabic
that it was an accident. That people needed help. That
the whole structure might collapse into the sea. But the
man’s ears were deaf.
He pressed his finger to the trigger, firing into the air.
I hit the deck and crawled for protection behind a lifeboat
stanchion. The boat itself dangled by one cable over the
I looked back the way I’d
come to a scene of devastation. The crane near the diving
station was gone, lying now somewhere on the bottom. A
group of Libyan roughnecks and roustabouts had gathered
near the main-engine heat exchangers and were firing weapons
toward the doghouse, which from where I crouched seemed
engulfed in flames.
A crazy paranoia gripped the
Libyans. They were firing guns when they should have been
looking for fire extinguishers. The roustabout who’d
blocked my route had disappeared. I stood and ran toward
the southern leg. The door to the kitchen area was in sight
now. Was Wanda inside or had she tried to get out? The
crown block from the top of the derrick had crushed the
dining room just beyond.
And then I saw the flames near the wire-line logging unit.
If the fire spread uncontrolled to the high-explosives storage
area, I knew all of us were finished. The last shipment of
supplies had contained ten boxes of 60 percent straight dynamite
and five 50-pound cases of 90 percent gelatin dynamite for
multiple charges. The straight dynamite alone would create
a tremendous explosion, probably enough to destroy the entire
rig. Each box contained 105 eight-inch sticks.
And I’d lost count of the number of canisters of blasting
agents in a separate storage magazine near the gear units
by the southernmost leg. They’d go next. And the spools
of Primacord, a high-velocity detonating cord. And the Detasheets,
olive-drab colored sheets of a flexible high explosive made
by DuPont. I felt sick. The Detasheets were a potent mixture
of PETN and an elastomeric binder. All in all we had nearly
a ton of explosives on site.
The acetylene tanks blew then. The back of the living quarters
imploded, as if under a direct hit by a bomb. The hot air
scorched my lungs and brought tears to my eyes.
Wanda! My God! If she were hurt,
I’d get vengeance
on them all—Libyans and Americans.
I reached the door to the kitchen area just as a dark-skinned
man, his black hair glistening with shards of glass, crawled
out of a pile of rubble from the ruins of the control tower,
an automatic pistol gripped in his left hand. He screamed
in Arabic and pulled the trigger. The slug slammed into the
metal door at head level and a fragment of the bullet caught
me in the neck. I stood there for a second stunned into immobility.
And then a second shell ripped by my head and I fell through
Screaming myself now, I scrambled on hands and knees toward
the inner door that led to the galley.
“I’m Canadian, you bastards, I’m Canadian,” I
was screaming in Arabic.
Wanda was near the stove, caught beneath a fallen metal
exhaust duct. As I ripped the material away, I could feel
the growing heat. One of the propane tanks that fed the kitchen
had gone up and the dining room was an inferno.
I had to get her outside and to a lifeboat.
When I pulled her free, her head
fell at a grotesque angle and I had to struggle to control
myself. As a diver I’d
learned to put a lid on fear, but this wasn’t my own
life at stake, it was my wife’s. I hadn’t prepared
myself to face that.
I put my ear to her mouth and thought I felt a light waft
of air. She was still breathing at least.
And then I turned her on her back to give her some air and
saw what remained of her chest.
I was sick, then. Wanda hadn’t
been crushed by the exhaust duct. No, something else had
done this. A weapon. Someone had shot her at close range.
Her eyes fluttered open and I watched her lips quiver. Each
painful movement was a stab in my heart.
“Derek,” she whispered,
her eyes unable to focus on my face.
“I’m here,” I said. “I
I tried to shield her head from the overheated air rushing
She struggled to speak again
and I bent to kiss her lips, to quiet her, to tell her
she didn’t need to speak.
But she tried to avert her head
and whispered, “No,
Derek. Listen!” A surge of life momentarily animated
her face, but her eyes were swinging wildly.
“It was me . . . the ambassador.
Mio . . . Stop them!”
And just as quickly the energy dissipated like the last
flicker of a dying candle.
Mio. She’d reverted to
Italian. Mine. But my what?
I bent over her, waiting, my cheek and ear brushing her
Waiting ... but there was no breath there now.
It was useless to drag her to
the boat. Tears welled up, but wouldn’t fall. A cold rage seized me. And then
I looked again at her lifeless features—twisted in
pain—and bent over in agony, oblivious to the flames
that were spreading from the dining room to the kitchen.
And then there was only one thought in my mind, all other
pain, all danger far away outside me.
Someone, somewhere, would pay
for this. Nothing else mattered now.