Safety Questions After Azerbaijan Oil Rig Blaze

Officials slow to acknowledge casualties amid rescue efforts hampered by high waves.

Safety Questions After Azerbaijan Oil Rig Blaze

Officials slow to acknowledge casualties amid rescue efforts hampered by high waves.

Saturday, 12 December, 2015

A fire at a Caspian Sea oil rig that claimed at least seven lives has prompted questions about accountability as well as safety standards in  Azerbaijan. 

Of the crew of 63 on the Guneshli rig, 33 were rescued, seven were confirmed dead, and 23 were still missing as of December 11, according to official figures quoted by the Trend news agency.

The fire on the rig broke out on December 4, after giant waves fractured a gas pipeline running from the rig. Constant wind and waves up to ten metres high prevented rescue ships from approaching the platform, according to a joint statement issued by the state oil company SOCAR, the emergencies ministry and the prosecution service.

The platform pumps both oil and natural gas from subsea deposits and is operated by SOCAR, which runs this part of the Guneshli offshore field. Another section of the field is operated by BP on behalf of an international consortium.

In a violent storm, workers on the platform got into two lifeboats to escape the blaze and lowered them to about ten metres above the water. But the height of the waves made it impossible to put the lifeboats into the sea and get them clear, the official statement said.

Late in the evening, the hook on one of the lifeboats broke and it fell into the sea. Three of its occupants were rescued by vessels standing by and the body of a fourth was recovered from the sea. The men in the second lifeboat were brought to safety the following morning. 

Six more bodies were recovered from the water later, and search and rescue operations were continuing by air and sea as of December 12.

When the accident happened, SOCAR initially denied there had been any casualties. The next day, the company reported that all the crewmembers on the rig had been saved but had not yet been brought back to shore. It was only that evening that pro-government news agencies reported that there were fatalities.

By contrast, the independent news agency Turan was already reporting casualties by the evening of December 4.

For a long time, it was unclear how many people had been on the platform. Local media reports were contradictory. Figures issued by SOCAR varied and only on the night of December 6 did it issue a list of those still missing on its official website.

The authorities gave the impression that they were trying to control the flow of information. Journalists had only restricted access to the hospital where injured oilworkers were being treated.

A rescue team member used social media to report that in the course of the operation, he received a number of phone calls from “important people” who told him what he was allowed to say to journalists and what he must not say.

For some, the reticence of SOCAR and state-aligned media outlets about the scale of the casualties is symptomatic of a more general reluctance to acknowledge and address problems in Azerbaijan. Parallels were drawn with the official response after an apartment block fire in Baku in March that killed 16 people. (See Baku Fire Deaths Prompt Safety Review.)

“In our country, nothing works properly until someone dies – a building burns down, so they remember the building and fix the problem,” a company manager who gave his name as Vugar said. “A platform burns down, and it turns out it was a poor platform. It seems it’s only death that gets serious problems resolved in this country.”

Oil worker Joshgun Kerimov agreed. “In this country, it’s become the trend to think about safety only after something has happened,” he said.

Kerimov has worked on the particular oil rig that went on fire, Guneshli No. 10.

“I worked on platforms No. 8 and 10 for just four months, and I went through a lot of fear,” he said. “One time, a ´Christmas tree´ wellhead fell off in front of workers coming back from lunch. If they’d returned any earlier, the wellhead would have dragged five or ten people into the water. In short, there was always something happening there, and something that might happen.”

Ilham Shaban, head of Caspian Barrel, an oil sector research group in Baku, says that Guneshli No. 10 is likely to be refitted for use, although the machinery on the platform is probably a write-off.

“It isn’t even about the equipment; it’s about better training for the workers, since the human factor is the main element when accidents like this happen,” he said. “Foreign companies set great store by constant – sometimes weekly – safety training.”

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