November 5, 1983: The Byford Dolphin diving bell accident leaves five dead and one critically injured. Byford Dolphin is a semi-submersible drilling rig and was operated by Dolphin Drilling, a Fred. Olsen Energy subsidiary and located in the North Sea. It is registered in Singapore and was built between October 1972 and February 1974. This is neither the first nor last accident on the rig, but it is by far the most serious. On this day, while drilling in the Frigg gas field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, four divers were in the decompression chamber system. This was attached to the diving bell by a short passage and two dive tenders were assisting in the process of decompression.
One of the divers was about to close the door between the chamber system and passage to the bell when the chamber explosively decompressed from nine atmospheric pressures to one atmosphere pressure in just a fraction of a second. Edwin Coward (British, 35 years old), Roy Lucas (British, 38 years old), Bjørn Giæver Bergersen (Norwegian, 29 years old), and Truls Hellevik (Norwegian, 34 years old) were the four divers. Also killed was William Crammond of Great Britain who was 32 years old. The other tender, Saunders, was injured. Both Crammond and Saunders were experienced divers. The bell had just come up and the divers Bergersen and Hellevik had removed their gear and were going to chamber 1. Coward and Lucas were already in chamber 2.
The bell door had closed and the diving supervisor had slightly increased bell pressure to seal the door tightly. The next step should have been to close the door between the passage and chamber 1. This did not happen. Instead, one of the tenders opened the clamp between the bell and the passage before the door to the chamber was sealed. The air rushed out with such force it pushed the bell away and killed the tender, severely injuring his partner. The four divers were instantly killed by the explosive decompression with terrifying bodily harm caused by the explosion of their internal organs. The boiling of their blood caused large amounts of fat to solidify in their bloodstream and other organs.
The accident was blamed on human error but it was never established whose error. The tender who opened the clamp may have done so under orders of a supervisor or by his own doing or he may have misunderstood communications. The only way to communicate from outside was via a bullhorn attached to a wall surface and heavy noise from both the rig and the sea made it difficult to hear. Fatigue may have also played a part as most divers worked 16 hour shifts. Engineering failure was also cited as the older platform did not have newer fail-safe systems installed. The families of the divers finally received damages from the Norwegian government 26 years after the accident.
I would go so far as to say that the Norwegian Government murdered my father because they knew that they were diving with an unsafe decompression chamber. – Clare Lucas, daughter of Roy Lucas
Connecting mechanisms between bell and chambers are to be so arranged that they cannot be operated when the trunk is pressurized. – Norske Veritas rule (established prior to the accident)
From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free. – Jacques Yves Cousteau
The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness. – Joseph Conrad
Also on this day: Buying and Selling – In 1935, the board game Monopoly first went on sale.
Big History – In 1885, Will Durant was born.
Flight First – In 1911, the first US transcontinental flight ended.
Ace of Spies – In 1925, Sydney Reilly died.