A view of Paria Fuel trading company Tank farm in Pointe-a-Pierre from the Gulf of Paria. – File photo/Lincoln Holder
NO-ONE could fail to be moved by the tragic deaths of four men trapped in an undersea oil pipeline at Paria Fuel Trading Company Ltd at Pointe-a-Pierre.
Amidst the national outpouring of grief, came demands for answers as to how had the men had become trapped and a seeming lack of any official rescue efforts.
While conducting repairs on February 25, divers Fyzal Kurban, Kazim Ali Jr, Rishi Nagassar, Yusuf Henry and Christopher Boodram were sucked into a pipeline by a vortex created by a sharp difference in water pressure known as a Delta P. Only Boodram escaped, to later give a heart-rending testimony at the inquiry.
After five days of anxiety, prayer and hope the men’s bodies were recovered – Ali, Henry, and Kurban first on February 28, and Nagassar on March 3.
Distraught relatives went to the Forensic Sciences Centre to identify them.
Henry’s father, Joseph Henry, left the FSC building, let out a father’s cry of pain and later wept at the trauma of having to try to identify his dead son.
“As I walked in there, they (FSC workers) warned me, they warned us. They let us know how bad it would be. The people in there warned us about what we are going to see.
“When I watched the face…That’s not my son’s face. Black like night and disfigured. When I say disfigured, I mean like…faceless.”
He could not recognise the battered, swollen and oil-slicked body on the FSC trolley, but knew it was his son due to a distinctive tattoo, “Outlaw.”
On March 3, Minister of Energy Stuart Young named a five-person investigative committee to enquire: attorney Shiv Sharma (chairman), engineer Eugene Tiah, subsea specialist Gregory Wilson, plus two persons to be nominated by each of energy companies BP and Shell. He gave them 45 days to report but said their report could come as soon as two weeks.
The Opposition queried the committee’s composition.
Young was unsure where his ministry derived its legal authority to have such a committee, but ventured it to be the Petroleum Act and/or oil contracts.
By April 22, Young announced a commission of enquiry under Jamaican QC/KC Dennis Morrison and local sub sea specialist Gregory Wilson, with Ramesh Maharaj, SC, as lead counsel.
Upon Morrison’s resignation for personal reasons, he was replaced by Jamaica-born, UK-based Jerome Lynch, QC/KC on June 24.
On September 7, Lynch complained of no resources.
“I await, with some considerable concern, pens to write with, paper to write on, printers to print with, scanners to scan with, the internet to connect to. Please help us do our job.”
The CoE sat in November and December at Tower D of the International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain.
VOICES IN THE PIPE
People in the comfort of their own homes, offices and workplaces nationwide were surely deeply moved when the CoE played a GoPro audio recording of the voices of the trapped men.
After people saw photos circulated online of the men’s bloated corpses, suddenly they heard the voices of the men when alive, in their last hours in the pipe. Strikingly, it was not a mood of horror or panic but camaraderie, optimism and hope in the men’s voices, even their dire situation.
“Are you hearing me? Inside the pipe too. I can’t come out.” one voice called.
“Chris, yeah. I’m right behind you.”
“You right behind me? All of we are in this together. We have to go. We have to start moving.”
LMCS: SOME RESCUE COULD HAVE BEEN TRIED
Boodram testified to the horrors of being sucked in to the pipeline in a vortex of water. “I said, ‘God, I’m coming. Ma, look for me.
“I was in a state of panic. I was not sure if I was dead. I was not sure if I was alive. I did not know if I was in heaven or hell, or in a pipe,” ”
He said the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life was keeping everybody calm in the pipeline.
Boodram recalled, “I said ‘no, we’re not going to die. We’re coming out of here, boy. We have to get out of this. God is good.’
“Inside there was like an unbelievable nightmare. Your eyes burning. Every time you try to open your eyes it burning. Pitch black – you can’t see anything.
“Your throat burning. Your ears ringing. Your body sore.”
The men, in pain, linked up themselves, he related. “We drag and pull, drag and pull.”
Eventually he had to leave the others and make his own way out. He lamented the lack of official rescue attempts even as Kurban’s son Michael Kurban unofficially dived into the pipe.
Boodram lamented officialdom. “Everybody was like a headless chicken.”
He said potential rescuers could have bypassed any six-inch wide scuba tank in the pipeline, just as he had done to escape.
Boodram said he begged for a rescue but said Paria officials claimed scuba gear was inadequate to use.
Kazim Ali Snr, head of LMCS, said much was unknown about the physical layout of the pipeline and its contents (oil, water and air), testifying about the accident and aftermath.
Paria counsel Gilbert Peterson asked if LMCS had taken steps to determine the pipe’s slope, undulation and configuration.
Ali replied, “No. We relied on information from Paria. We took Paria’s word it was a level pipeline.”
Peterson asked if the apparent caused of the accident – a Delta P event – could have resulted from the pipeline’s undulation.
Ali replied, “It could have been one of the factors.”
The hearing heard that while air pockets in an undulating pipeline might have contributed to the accident, ironically they also helped the trapped men stay alive longer, by providing breathing air.
Lynch asked Ali about the size of the air pockets and how much time this would let the men stay alive pending rescue.
Ali replied, “We were just going on hope. I calculated afterwards we had about 1,500 cubic feet of air.” He did not know how long such air could sustain the men.
Ali said, “What kept us going was that we heard a constant knocking from the pipeline.” Ali also said, “Until Boodram came out, we didn’t even think about air pockets in the line.”
Cited a Paria document citing a ten foot differential in fluid levels between berths five and six, Peterson asked, “Didn’t you understand they are telling you it (pipeline) is not flat?”
Ali replied, “I didn’t understand or appreciate that. Maybe they should have made it a little more clear.”
PARIA: FIRST FIND OUT CONDITIONS IN PIPELINE
Michael Wei, technical and maintenance manager at Paria, testified that Paria first sought to find out conditions in the pipeline and to use approved divers, not risk more lives.
He said he feared any would-be rescuers might suffer a second Delta P event. Paria lacked information to do a risk assessment, such as how much oil was in the pipeline and how far the men were.
“You need to know if there were obstructions of hazards. To send someone into the line without knowing that would be reckless.”
Maharaj chided that Boodram emerged at 6 pm but Paria only questioned him at 10 pm about the pipeline’s interior.
Wei said, “The first thing you do is ensure his life is saved. Or he’d not be here today. He had bodily injuries and oil in his throat.
“The primary responsibility would have to be take care of him before questioning him on every condition inside the pipeline.”
Wei said Boodram couldn’t give information as the pipeline was “dark and full of oil.”
He said LMCS was responsible to execute an emergency rescue plan, but had lost its standby divers.
Wei said diving experts told Paria it was too risky to send rescuers into the pipeline.
He said, “Paria advised the Coast Guard to take control of the site because it was getting unruly. It is uncontrollable.
“Paria requested the Coast Guard to assist people from not getting into the pipeline.”
Wei said he had not met with non-official divers on the scene. He questioned whether Michael Kurban had entered the pipe and said he did not try to contact him.
Collin Piper, terminal operations manager at Paria, testified he made the “best” and “right” decision to not risk more lives by any unofficial rescue efforts.
He said he understood Michael Kurban’s courage wanting to save his father from the pipeline.
“But I’ve also looked at this on the reverse.
“If I was the father in that pipe, would I want somebody to send my son into that pipe after me in a reckless manner where he could perish?
“And every time I ask myself that question, my answer was no. I would not want anybody to be so reckless with my son’s life.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you understand what we were faced with?”
Piper said the whole scenario of the fateful event was not as simple as painted by the attorneys in the CoE, as if all it took was sending a diver to pull the men out with a rope.
“We can sit in this room and believe what we want to believe. But put yourself in that position on that evening.
“When you have to make a decision to send a man into a pipeline a quarter of a mile long, you have no idea where this man is going, you have no idea what this man is going to face, you have no idea.
“If you believe that I just sat there and just decided I’m just not sending a man in a pipe, you simply do not understand what we went through that night.
“That is not something I want anybody in this room or anybody at all to have to go through and to make a decision.”
Piper also thought the unofficial would-be rescuers were too “emotionally charged” to enter the pipeline.
“My assessment of that was that it would not be a prudent decision to make with a group who are emotionally charged, who have never done anything like this before, who have no training to do anything like this…” He claimed no one had ever before entered a pipeline to attempt such a rescue.
Maharaj retorted that Piper had simply assumed the rescuers had lacked requisite competence and training.
Piper replied, “This is a 30-inch pipeline, with oil, running for a quarter mile. We had no idea. Nobody had any training in this, to go into this pipeline.
“They were emotionally charged and at the time it was not the best group to send in that pipeline.”
Catherine Balkissoon, Paria’s acting technical lead, briefly giggled during her testimony but ended up in tears.
It began when Maharaj asked Paria had taken “quick and urgent action,” given a five hour wait on cameras to view inside the pipeline.
She testified, “Paria took action to say (to rescuers), ‘Listen. Hold up. Are you sure you want to dive in there?’
“Someone’s life could be lost. It’s a balancing act.”
Lynch interjected, “It might be a different balancing act if it were your father that was in the pipe or your son.”
Balkissoon burst into tears, saying, “No, that’s not fair.”
Peterson said to Lynch, “We on this side representing Paria have been respectful and sensitive to witnesses. It’s only fair that we extend the same respect to Paria’s witnesses.”
Lynch apologised to Balkissoon.
He added, “But part of the risk analysis includes the person being willing to go into a pipeline.
“I cannot divorce myself from the fact that if it were my son, I might take a risk I wouldn’t have if it were not my son.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable factor to take into account.” The enquiry resumes in January.