Professional deep-sea divers known as saturation divers work on offshore oil rigs and subsea pipelines, often delving to depths of 500 feet (152 metres) or more. However, saturation divers can spend up to 28 days on a single task, eating and sleeping in a small high-pressure chamber between shifts. This is in stark contrast to the typical commercial diver, who spends only a few hours working underwater before returning to the surface.
Saturation divers make a good salary (between $30,000 and $45,000 per month), yet they have to work in an alien and confining atmosphere. And it’s not without risk. In 1983, a horrific catastrophe occurred on the Norwegian-operated oil rig Byford Dolphin, taking the lives of four saturation divers and one crew member.
The Byford Dolphin disaster shook the commercial diving community to its core, prompting increased attention to safety precautions to prevent any further tragedies like the one that befell the crew of the Byford Dolphin. The following is a brief introduction to decompression sickness, also known as “the bends,” which should be read in preparation for our subsequent explanation.
The Problem with ‘The Bends’
Divers have learnt a lot about how to swim to tremendous depths safely since the invention of scuba diving in the 1940s, often the hard way. Every single cell in a diver’s body feels the pressure of the water as they go deeper into the ocean. Even nitrogen gas molecules inhaled into the lungs are compressed by the pressure and dissolve into the bloodstream.
The nitrogen intake itself isn’t the problem. When a diver tries to return to the surface too rapidly, complications arise. Like opening the cap of a 2-liter soda bottle and shaking it, this is how you can expect the contents to flow. Instantly, the compressed gases release their pressure and expand, forming bubbles.
That’s essentially what happens physiologically when a diver gets decompression sickness, sometimes known as “the bends.” Nitrogen molecules that had been dissolved under pressure rapidly expand and become gaseous again if they are brought too quickly from the high pressure of the deep sea to the considerably lower pressure at the surface.
Commercial diver and ADCI executive director Phillip Newsum warns that nitrogen bubbles in the blood can obstruct blood flow to organs including the heart. When it happens, “decompression sickness” becomes a real possibility.
Joint and muscular pain, disorientation, paralysis, heart attacks, and strokes are only some of the symptoms of decompression sickness, sometimes known as “the bends.” Treatment for the bends involves repressurizing the patient in a hyperbaric chamber and gradually lowering their pressure over the course of several hours or days.
The easiest way to avoid decompression sickness is to carefully climb to the surface, pausing frequently to let your body to “off gas” the nitrogen. If you’re a certified Scuba diver, you know how to read a recreational dive planner that specifies when and for how long you should pause for air throughout a dive.
However, commercial divers are often expected to go to depths that recreational SCUBA divers would never dare to go. Next, we’ll see that this calls for a different kind of decompression, the failure of which ultimately resulted in the tragic deaths of the Byford Dolphin divers.
How Saturation Divers Stay Under for So Long
Diving deeper and staying underwater for longer causes a greater concentration of nitrogen to be dissolved in the blood. The term “saturation diver” refers to the point at which a diver’s blood has excessive dissolved nitrogen.
Saturation divers can go as deep as 1,000 feet down while doing their jobs (304 meters). It would take them days to go back to the surface if they utilised the same method that recreational divers do to safely decompress, which involves ascending slowly with long stops.
To avoid this, saturation divers are brought to the surface in inflated diving bells and placed in purpose-built decompression chambers. Saturation divers spend almost a day in the chamber for every 100 feet (30 metres) they go down, where they can relax on mattresses, watch movies, and eat from pressured slots.
Saturation divers are needed, but it’s not cost-effective for oil companies to pay them for only a few hours of labour and many days off. In addition, once you hit your body’s saturation point, no time spent underwater will allow your body to absorb more nitrogen. On the other hand, Saturation divers never return to the surface because they never decompress.
Saturation divers will use pressurised diving bells to commute to the depths for up to 28 days, the maximum allowed by the industry. Rather than ascending to the surface and entering a decompression chamber, deep-sea divers rest in a hyperbaric chamber, which keeps their body at the same pressure as the deep sea.
Newsum, whose group helps develop worldwide safety standards for commercial diving, refers to this as “the storage depth.” “By remaining compressed, they can work for as long as they need to, and there will be no need for decompression upon their return.”
No, not until we finish this task. Saturation divers always spend their last week on the job slowly decompressing in preparation for returning to the open air.
Mishap Occurring During a Normally Routine Procedure
Saturation diving is a procedure that requires a team effort. Technicians in the field of life support ensure that the hyperbaric chamber’s air mixture is identical to that which scuba divers breathe underwater. The diving bell is raised and lowered by a crane, and the dive control team monitors the divers’ progress. The males who are confined to the common areas have access to cooks who prepare and serve them meals.
Tenders are employees who perform crucial support roles. The “umbilical,” a long string of air hoses and communication wires that connects divers to the surface, is unspooled and retracted with their assistance. The tenders’ previous roles also included docking the diving bell to the pressurised dwelling chambers.
Saturation divers are “at the whim” of the tender and their dive control team supervisors, according to Newsum.
An experienced tender named William Crammond was doing a standard practise on the North Sea oil rig Byford Dolphin on November 5, 1983. There were two pressurised habitats on the rig, each with room for two divers. Crammond had just finished hooking up the diving bell to the habitable chambers and deposited a pair of divers into chamber one. Two of the divers had already gone to rest in the second compartment.
And then everything started to go terribly wrong. The doors to the dwelling chambers wouldn’t be locked and the diving bell wouldn’t be removed until all possible danger had passed. Explosive decompression occurred because the diving bell came loose before the chamber doors were closed.
This is a death sentence, according to Newsum. Ignore it; “You won’t survive.”
Atmospheric pressure within the Byford Dolphin’s habitat dropped from 9 atmospheres (the pressure felt hundreds of feet below the ocean) to 1 atmosphere (normal air pressure at the surface) in an instant. Crammond was killed and colleague tender Martin Saunders was badly injured when the explosive release of air from the chamber threw the massive diving bell into the air.
The four saturation divers inside had a much worse fate. Three individuals, identified as Edwin Arthur Coward, Roy P. Lucas, and Bjrn Giaever Bergersen, were killed in the chamber, and autopsy records suggest that they were “cooked” from the inside when the nitrogen in their blood suddenly exploded into gas bubbles. Sadly, they met an instant and painful end.
The most horrific death befell the fourth scuba diver, Truls Hellevik. When the pressure was finally removed, Hellevik was standing in front of the partially opened door to the main room. His body was sucked through a slit so small that it tore him apart and spit out his organs into the deck below.
Some Tough Truths Were Discovered, but Family Justice Was Delayed
The North Sea saw an oil boom beginning in the 1960s, when oil was discovered off the coast of Norway. When it came to decision-making, safety wasn’t always given the most weight. There were at least 58 divers who drowned in the North Sea between the 1960s and the early 2000s, according to some estimates.
According to Newsum, “The Byford Dolphin was one of the greatest oil field disasters in history,” and it prompted widespread reforms in the North Sea and the safety of commercial divers around the world.
According to Newsum, nowadays every diving enterprise must do a thorough risk assessment and hazard analysis. Every step has a backup plan in place in case something goes wrong due to human mistake or a technical glitch. Saturation divers can be safely evacuated from oil rigs in the event of a hurricane or fire aboard one of the hyperbaric lifeboats.
Regrettably, the Norwegian government, which ran the Byford Dolphin in 1983, did not compensate the families of the five men killed in the disaster until many years later. The Norwegian government did not compensate the relatives of the six people killed and the injured Saunders in the 1983 disaster until 2009. The research concluded that the catastrophe was caused by malfunctioning equipment rather than human error. The Byford Dolphin rig was decommissioned in 2016.
What Exactly happened with the divers?
Following a dive, the four divers left the diving bell and entered their compacted dwelling chambers.After concluding their work, Bjrn Bergersen and Truls Hellevik moved inside chamber two to unwind with Edwin Coward and Roy Lucas.
Two diving tenders, William Crammond and Martin Saunders, would clamp the bell to the trunk connecting chamber two and the diving bell.Crammond, who had done this before, apparently made a deadly mistake.Between the second and third stairs, when the chamber door was partly closed, Crammond jerkily unlatched the diving bell.
Due to the large pressure differential between the chamber and the outside world, the trunk decompressed explosively.Due to the extreme pressure gradient they were exposed to, all four divers perished promptly and violently.The diving bell was dislodged by the force of the air from the trunk and it crashed down onto the tenders, killing one and critically wounding the other.
Their deaths are often regarded as one of the most gruesome in human history.Given the rapid nature of the occurrence, it is reasonable to assume that all the divers passed away without any suffering, but the scene that was left behind was horrible nonetheless.
The families of those lost in the Byford Dolphin catastrophe founded the North Sea Divers Alliance as a sobering reminder of the dangers of saturation diving.Despite evidence suggesting that human error was to blame for the deaths, the Alliance launched a lawsuit alleging that the ship lacked adequate safety measures.
Crammond was cleared of wrongdoing after a 26-year study into the dispute found that faulty equipment in the chambers was to blame for the calamity.As a result, the bereaved relatives received financial compensation.