In the Clutches of Death
A survivor of disaster in the North Sea tells his story
“I FELT the platform sink below me, and in seconds I was in the water. I was drawn down, down, down,” Jahnsen recalls. But he got out alive!
Jahn Otto Jahnsen, age 23, of Grimstad, Norway, was on board the service and hotel platform “Alexander L. Kielland” when it capsized in the middle of the North Sea on March 27, 1980. Of the 212 men on board, 123 lost their lives in what was Norway’s worst peacetime disaster in this century.
The platform was a huge structure, with a total height of 99 meters (325 feet) from the bottom pontoons to the top of the drilling tower. It had been converted from a drilling rig to a hotel platform, and was situated beside the fixed steel platform “Edda” at the Ekofisk field.
Jahnsen was down in a small movie theater on the hotel platform that night. He recalls: “I heard a bang, then another. At first I thought it was a large wave hitting the platform deck, because we had rough weather. Then we heard a third bang, and suddenly the entire platform tipped over. In seconds the deck was at a 35- to 40-degree angle.” Evidently a brace had fractured, causing one of the five main supporting legs of the platform to break.
Everyone in the movie room got out. But higher up in the structure those in a larger theater were trapped—unable to reach the doors because of the tilting floor.
“I came out into a corridor and worked my way upward. Some were panicking. Screams were heard. Some had fallen and hurt themselves, and we were all scared.
“I was able to press open an emergency exit, a steel door. It had to be pushed upward and was very heavy. At last getting it open, I climbed out onto the slippery deck. But for the icy wintry winds the clothes I had on were much too light.” The air temperature was about five degrees Celsius (41° F.) and the winds had the strength of a storm.
Making his way up a ladder, Jahnsen succeeded in reaching one of the lifeboats, at the highest point of the tilting deck.
Into the Sea!
“Some went into the lifeboat, but I simply didn’t dare,” he says. “When it was lowered, it was smashed against the platform. As far as I know, only one of the men on board got out alive—and about 10 others lost their life.”
While watching this, Jahnsen received a safety vest and put it on. Several came after him, but there were not enough to go around.
“The deck tilted even more and we realized that we had to get into the water,” Jahnsen remembers. “We tried to get down one of the giant shafts or legs. Eight meters [26 feet] in diameter, it was now pointing out from the deck almost horizontally, high above the water. It must have been 20 meters [65 feet] to the surface. Others smashed out windows in the living quarters and then walked down the walls.”
Now everything happened quickly.
“The platform tilted more and more. We held in a 10-centimeter [4-inch]-thick wire, which followed the leg downward. Suddenly this wire was ripped apart, with fireworks of sparks all around us. Fortunately, I wasn’t hit by it. But a man close by me was and he fell into the sea.”
Right then the platform submerged. Fortunately, Jahnsen had on the safety vest. He struggled against the water until he came back to the surface.
The “Alexander L. Kielland” had capsized. The four remaining platform legs were sticking up out of the water. Many of Jahnsen’s friends were trapped in rooms and corridors inside the gigantic platform, 40 to 50 meters (130 to 160 feet) underneath.
“I caught sight of a pickup boat. The boat was damaged and full of water, but I got into it and later hauled four other men aboard,” he says.
During the next few hours the waves increased to heights of 15 meters (50 feet). The winds rose to hurricane force.
“While our boat was being pitched around by the wind and the waves, we saw a lot of people in the sea. Some were injured. Others floated with heads down, motionless.”
From the deck of the neighboring drilling platform “Edda,” 30 meters (100 feet) above the water, rubber rafts were thrown to the men below who were fighting for their lives. Most of them were carried away by the wind and the waves, but some were grabbed by strong hands and put to use. Jahnsen caught hold of one of them.
“The raft was floating upside down, but we got it turned over, and three of us managed to climb on board. We sat in water up to the waist. But it was a raft with a tent over it, and this gave us shelter against the icy winds. In just a few minutes, we were able to pull more men out of the water, until we were nine on board this raft.”
It all happened very quickly.
“It took only 10 to 15 minutes from the first bang till the platform capsized, and I don’t think it was more than a quarter of an hour from when we fell into the water until we were on board the rubber raft.”
But then they drifted for some three hours.
“The waves got larger and larger. Most of us became seasick and vomited. One had an ugly-looking cut in the head and seemed somewhat absentminded, but he managed to sit upright. Later we began seeing supply boats. At times they came very close, but the waves were so high that I doubt they saw us.”
A Helicopter Above
On board the tiny rubber raft, as the men slowly came to their senses, they began to beat and massage one another in order to keep warm. It was biting cold. They did not believe they would be rescued before dawn.
“All the time we heard helicopters,” Jahnsen recalls, “but they passed by. Suddenly, about 11 o’clock, a strong beam of light was centered on the opening of the tent of our raft. We heard the sound of a helicopter, louder and louder. We looked out, saw the copter hovering above us and a man being lowered. Due to the waves he missed the raft and was hoisted up again.”
The helicopter circled above, and when it came back the man hit the small raft perfectly with his rescue wire.
“‘Is all well?’ was all he said. Without waiting for any answer he placed a strap around the first of us. Up he went into the British military helicopter above. Man after man was sent up in rapid succession, and the last to leave the raft was the Englishman.
“The helicopter made another swoop around, to look for more survivors, and then, after some 20 minutes, we nine men were brought down to the ‘Ekofisk hotel,’ a large platform that was built as a fixed platform to serve exclusively as living quarters. Men ran out to the helicopter, two by two, to carry us into the platform hospital. Here we were wrapped in warm blankets, given warm drinks and were massaged.”
Before it was over, sailors and airmen from many countries took part in the rescue operation, the largest ever mounted in the North Sea. It involved 2,000 men and 47 vessels, with 24 helicopters and planes above sharing in the search for survivors.
“We were the first to be brought to the Ekofisk hotel,” Jahnsen says. “All of us, even the one who was injured, had come through it well. At 2:30 a.m. a helicopter took us to Rogaland Hospital at Stavanger, Norway. Next morning I was permitted to leave the hospital, and the same evening I was with my family once again in Grimstad, 24 hours after it all began.”
Jahnsen thinks he was fortunate. He survived, with no injuries, and did not have nerve problems afterward. By profession he is a mason and he had just taken work in the North Sea during the slack winter season. Now he intends to stay on land.
The difference between life and death was very small that March night in the North Sea. It was a terrible illustration of how chance may decide whether a man will live or die—or, as the Bible puts it: “The swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle, . . . because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.”—Eccl. 9:11.
When disaster strikes, pure chance may often be the deciding factor. If Jahn Otto Jahnsen had gone to the large cinema instead of the small one, if he had entered the lifeboat instead of climbing out on the huge platform leg, if he had come too late to get a safety vest, if he had been holding in the steel wire when it cracked, if he had not got onto a raft covered by a tent—in all these cases he might have lost his life instead of surviving. Being young, well-trained and accustomed to skindiving no doubt helped, but these were not decisive factors.
What decides in such situations is not being among “the swift” or “the mighty,” but timing and “unforeseen occurrence.” The truth is not, as some religious leaders will contend, that God is acting in a special way when such disasters strike. On the contrary, through the Bible he makes clear that many things in life are chance happenings.
Getting out of the clutches of death was like a miracle to many of the survivors and it produced a sense of gratefulness over being alive. The same sense of gratefulness may, in fact, be felt by many of us when reading a story such as this. After all, we should be grateful for life every day, for having time in which we can do a little good for our fellowmen and show gratitude to our Creator—“because time and unforeseen occurrence” befall us all.