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Wives of missing Russian rig workers criticize company officials

The wife of the Russian oil rig's captain says towing the Kolskaya platform through icy waters was a suicidal mission. Thirty-nine workers are missing.

December 21, 2011|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • An oil rig worker is evacuated from an icebreaker to a helicopter two days after he was rescued from the Sea of Okhotsk. The Kolskaya oil and gas drilling platform sank Sunday during a fierce winter storm.
An oil rig worker is evacuated from an icebreaker to a helicopter two days… (Russian Emergency Ministry )

Reporting from Moscow — As hopes faded Tuesday for the rescue of 39 workers still missing after an oil rig capsized in a fierce winter storm off the east coast of Russia, the wife of one of the men called the towing of the platform through icy waters a suicide mission.

The multi-ton Kolskaya oil and gas drilling platform sank Sunday in the Sea of Okhotsk about 146 miles off Sakhalin Island while being towed to its new destination in Vietnam. Fourteen crew members were rescued and 14 were found dead Sunday, officials said. The 39 missing workers are unlikely to have survived in such frigid waters.

"My husband called me several times and said that the mission was suicidal, as it was prohibited to transport rigs in those waters between Dec. 1 and Feb. 29," Lyudmila Kozlova, the wife of Capt. Alexander Kozlov, said in a phone interview from the port of Murmansk in northwestern Russia. "He said the waves were very high, and the wind was very strong and cold and if the platform got all iced over it would surely capsize, which turned true in the end."

The rig's owner, AMNGR, which is based in Murmansk, blamed force majeure, or an unsurmountable event, in the sinking and insisted that the rig was well maintained, having undergone work this year. The rig was being towed by an icebreaker and a tugboat.

Yuri Melekhov, AMNGR's acting general director, said four inflated rescue rafts with capacity for 25 people each were put out on the water. "But the storm conditions prevented the people from using these rafts," he said at a news conference Monday in Murmansk.

Kozlova and another crew member's wife denounced the decision to order the transport of the rig during such a perilous period and wondered why the workers had not been evacuated sooner.

The rig finished its drilling work off the coast of the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka in October, and Kozlov officially insisted several times that delaying transport was dangerous, his wife recalled Tuesday.

When it was decided to tow the platform in mid-December, Kozlov, 61, refused to be part of the operation and tendered his resignation, which the company didn't accept, she said. Instead, the company sent its chief sea travel safety specialist, Capt. Mikhail Tersin, to help Kozlov and oversee the move.

Tersin, 61, wasn't supposed to be on the rig during the move but on a towboat, said his wife, Olga Tersina, but she was sure "he stayed with the Kolskaya's crew to the last trying to save them."

"I spoke to him every day until the accident, and the last time he didn't say much but asked me to go to the church and light a candle, his voice very tense and tired," said Tersina, whose husband told her that if the rig hadn't been moved, it would have been crushed by ice forming on the water's surface. "To save a piece of metal, no matter how precious it is, the company sent to death so many men."

Grigory Pasko, head of the Investigative Journalism Foundation and a former navy captain who served in the Far East, called the winter towing extremely dangerous.

"You need to be a lunatic to risk towing such a complex and bulky structure as this rig across those seas in December, when even our navy boats try to keep to the ports and not sail out without a complete emergency," he said.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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