Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2003
Logistics - Accidents
Industry & Economy - Petroleum
Aboard ONGC's Dauphin copter a fortnight ago
Chennai , Aug. 12
WHAT do you say when calamity strikes a place you visited barely a fortnight ago? When the news of the crash of a helicopter ferrying ONGC personnel to Mumbai High came in on August 11, thoughts naturally went back to the day when this correspondent was on a trip to the Neelam oilfield. The date was July 26 and it was one of those rare, sunny mornings, bang in the middle of the monsoon in Mumbai. This correspondent accompanied by ONGC officials, Ms Narayani Mahil and Mr Ashok Verma, arrived at the ONGC helibase in Juhu at 8 a.m.
After the mandatory security check, we were ushered into the waiting French-made Dauphin nine-seater helicopter. We were handed life vests that we tied to our waists, before fastening the seat belt. I was waiting for the usual, boring safety instructions normally given before the commencement of any flight. But there were none. Though it struck me as odd, I dismissed it with the explanation that it was probably too much to ask for, when tens of sorties were made every day by numerous helicopters belonging to Pawan Hans Corporation and ONGC itself. And again, except me, the others on the helicopter were routine fliers anyway.
Soon, we were airborne to our destination, the Neelam processing complex, 77 km into the Arabian Sea. I cast a nervous eye around the chopper from my vantage seat behind the pilot. The sight of nothing but a vast expanse of water below was certainly unnerving, but the confident body language of the pilot and co-pilot was reassuring. Half an hour later, one could spot the numerous well-head platforms and rigs in the horizon, which heralded our arrival into the heart of India's oil map, Mumbai High.
As our helicopter approached the Neelam processing complex helipad, one could spot an off-shore supply vessel (a small-sized ship) bobbing in the choppy waters. It had taken us about 45 minutes to reach our destination and the time was nearing 9 a.m. now.
The day ahead was to be spent touring the platform that is like a mini city, generating its own power and producing its own potable water. The Neelam field, one of three major assets that make up Mumbai High, produces 82,000 barrels of oil and 4.5 million metric standard cubic metres of gas everyday. The field went into production in the early eighties.
The staff here work on 15-day shifts and what struck one was their camaraderie and high morale. Life on an oil rig can be quite tough - you are cut off from your family, you have to brave the elements and, to boot, handle a volatile substance such as crude oil. The sea gets really rough during the monsoons and this correspondent witnessed the herculean effort of a supply vessel trying to land supplies on to the platform.
Rig staff are well looked after. They are given 15-days' paid leave after every shift, apart from flight tickets to their homes, wherever in India. They have comfortable accommodation on the rig - within the constraints of available space - and are served high quality food. There is satellite television bringing in popular language channels for entertainment. Alcohol consumption and cigarettes are banned on the rig; employees get together to play indoor games in the evenings.
As we return to Mumbai by another routine sortie late that afternoon (flights are banned after dark), one mused on the tough life of an oilfield worker. The line dividing life and death is probably thinner than in any other profession, save the military. That line was broken on August 11, with disastrous consequences.
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