Storm Track

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(Saturday, April 26)

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 pipeline.

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 Quincy compressor.

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 back. “It’ll 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 bastard.”

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 Galeazzi chamber?”

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.”

He scowled.

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 said.

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 too happy.

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 about it.

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 smell. Ammonia?

“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 would be.

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 meeting Wanda.

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 on!”

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 eyes.

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 side.

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 the door.

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 love you.”

I tried to shield her head from the overheated air rushing past.

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 lips.

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.

—Reprinted from Storm Track by Ron Terpening by permission of the author. Copyright © Ron Terpening, 1989. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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