RADHICA DE SILVA
On the fateful day of 17th October 1985, the charred corpses of two offshore workers were discovered in the bathroom of Berth No. 5, their arms around each other in an apparent embrace before flames consumed their bodies.
They were among 14 workers killed when an explosion occurred on Sealine 33 at Berth No 5 in Trintoc’s Pointe-a-Pierre harbour at 12:35 pm.
An auxiliary barge and a pile driver barge Atlas and a launch were all destroyed in the oil fire.
And like present-day, a government-appointed investigation was launched after the explosion, which was deemed the worst industrial accident in T&T’s 100-year-old oil industry history.
The 1985 accident report findings
The eight-member investigating team was set up by the then Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Patrick Manning and was headed by Special Advisor to Minister Hugh Hinds.
The investigation revealed there were “non-observance of standard safety procedures, lack of planning, coordination and proper supervision within the various departments involved in the removal of ship blanks.”
It also said “Sealine 33 was not suitably prepared for the operation planned.”
Despite these widely publicized findings, no one was ever charged with criminal negligence and years after the tragedy, there continued to be protests from the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) whose then Branch Secretary Frank Drayton wrote extensively in the OWTU’s Vanguard calling for safe working conditions for workers.
The children of the dead workers suffered, according to an article published in a Bomb newspaper editorial titled Trintoc Horror, dated 3rd April 1987.
It said evidence taken from 34 people concluded that the explosion was triggered by flash ignition of liquid hydrocarbon, which escaped from the open flange of Sealine 33.
The 14 victims who lost their lives, never knew the line they were working on was in service and had thousands of barrels of Algerian condensate.
The article said steps had not been taken to ensure that it was safe to remove the ship blank from Sealine 33, “because the line was not isolated from inter-connecting systems.”
It also noted that the Pile driver Barge Atlas was not upwind of the workplace in accordance with established company practice. A further misstep occurred when attempts were not made to depressurize and bleed the line or to check any pressure gauge provided, which was against standard procedures.
A sense of deja-vu
Speaking to Guardian Media, Haffeza Kurban-Hyatali, whose father Ramjohn Kurban was killed in the 1985 explosion, recalled how nobody was charged for criminal negligence back then, even though the findings of the report showed serious breaches.
She is hoping there will not be a repeat of this when an investigation is completed into the February 25th incident at the No 6 Berth seabed pipeline which killed her brother Fyzal Kurban and three other divers—Yusuff Henry, Kazim Ali Jr and Rishi Nagessar.
“I remember that day as if it was yesterday, when our father Ramjohn was killed when the ship exploded. Now my brother is gone. This is a tragedy that should not have happened,” Haffeza said.
Recalling the day her father died, Haffeza said:
“I remember when dad left for work. Just after lunchtime, we were lying down and my brother Fyzal came running and he called out and say, ‘Mamma! The ship was on fire and pappy died’.”
She said her father had planned on going to Frankie’s Drive-In Hardware for some red paint to paint their steps. They lived at the Texaco Housing scheme at the time. Fyzal left with their mother and later on, when news confirmed that the 14 men were dead, the OWTU’s blue shirt army came out in vast numbers at the Pointe-a-Pierre Roundabout to call for safer working conditions.
Despite his father’s horrific death, Fyzal went on to become one of T&T’s best-certified commercial divers who died a hero, having given his life to save the lone survivor, Christopher Boodram, from the February 25th tragedy.
Industry expert says protocols were established after 1985
Meanwhile, the former superintendent of Petrotrin Area West Vishnu Ramjattan who was in charge of Berth No. 5 and Berth No. 6 where both the 1985 and the 2022 tragedies occurred, said he too hoped that proper protocols will remain in place to safeguard lives.
He also confirmed that after the 1985 tragedy, no one was charged with criminal negligence.
“People got moved around the department but nobody was ever charged,” he said.
Many of the families never received financial assistance from Trintoc.
He said new protocols came into effect:
“The first thing they did was the removal of the flange. Anywhere they had a flange, they put bleed stubs to bleed the line from the top and bottom. In some cases, they put a slip blank so the line could be bled appropriately. If the line is pressurized it would not bend or break. They made sure that fire extinguishers and water hoses were on standby. They stipulated that there should be a launch on standby. And that there should be a barge on standby as well,” he revealed.
Ramjattan said he, too, wanted a fair and thorough investigation.
Those who died in 1985
1- Ramjohn Kurban, 38, Plaisance Park.
2- Ramlal Gangoo, 35, Soledad Road,
3- Hydar Karim, 39, Piparo.
4- Henry Nathan, 39, Gasparillo.
5- Roopnarine Mahase, 47, Cocoyea Village.
6- Steve Francis Jules, 40, Cocoyea Village
7- Ernest Bissessar, 42, Marabella
8- Frank Mohammed 47, La Romaine
9- Frank Mathura, 50, Claxton Bay
10- Vishnu Gobinsingh, 38, Claxton Bay
11- Carver Martin, 36, San Fernando
12- Frank Mitchell, 38, Sixth Company Village
13- Trevor Cuffy, 40, Claxton Bay.
14- Boodram Bridgenanan, 38, Claxton Bay