I wrote the following piece for FHM in 1997; it’s one of several ‘real-life adventure tales’ they commissioned from me. This one is based on my interview with Jon May, a paramedic who specialised in working with deep sea divers and the offshore oil industry. He told me an horrific tale. His team of divers were contracted to a construction barge, laying pipes on the sea bed, when a typhoon overtook them. Telling his heart-rending story, May was sometimes overcome by emotion and I can see why.
Around the tiny room lay bodies of men recovered from the shipwreck. Some were dying, some were already dead, all had horrific injuries. To save them was a hellish task under any conditions. But worst of all was to be in the makeshift hospital of a stricken tugboat as it tossed upon the 50-foot waves of a typhoon in the South China Sea. On one side was a man so bloody that only the whites of his eyes showed through. Nearby, too much in shock to scream, another looked down at the bone that stuck out from his smashed leg. A British offshore medic, Jon May raced from one casualty to the next, improvising whatever emergency help he could. Exhausted beyond endurance, relying only on the illegal stimulants that coursed through his veins, he offered such treatment as he was able. By night’s end, as the storm abated, May sank into a fitful sleep, his first respite from a 24-hour nightmare that haunts him to this day.
His superhuman efforts were not wasted, for the tug had plucked many men from the vicious seas and would, in time, bring them ashore to safety. Yet as May was well aware, there had been considerable losses, and none crueller than the team of six British divers he’d set sail with, six men who were now descending to the ocean floor in an airtight metal tomb that offered them no prospect of escape. It was a tragic outcome to a series of events that ought never to have happened.
There had been forebodings of impending disaster the previous evening, when May and his colleagues – deep sea construction workers attached to a giant barge laying oil pipes on the ocean floor – received warning of an approaching tropical storm. They considered the barge’s skipper, a powerfully-built, strong-willed American called Jimmy, to be “crazier than Captain Ahab”, and prayed he would have the sense to get his craft towed away in good time. Even though the typhoon was some 15 hours distant, May knew that his divers would need three days decompression before they could leave the special chamber they occupied, perched by their diving bell at the rear of the barge. There was no time to lose, but there was a delay all the same, and it would prove fatal.
In 1993 Jon May was a trained paramedic and LST (Life Support Technician) with 15 years’ experience in the international oil industry. His travels had already seen him saving lives in the 1988 Piper Alpha catastrophe in the North Sea, clearing marine explosives after the Gulf War, and witnessing the massacre of Vietnamese boat people by pirates in that same South China Sea. This should have been a routine assignment. The pipe-laying barge was American-owned, crewed by Filipino seamen, with a hired squad of UK men for the underwater work. As an LST, May was the surface man in charge of the special chamber where divers lived for days on end, in between their descents, kept at air pressures equivalent to the massive weight of water they worked in.
Contacting his divers by intercom and video monitor, May’s control room was next to their chamber, with a reinforced porthole between. The barge itself was a vast rectangle, a floating production line pulled by two tugboats, with the diving system installed at one end, overhanging the water. Operating at depth, divers’ bodies absorb gas; if they return to surface pressure too quickly the gas forms bubbles in their bloodstream. At best “the bends” are painful, at worst they will maim, disable and kill. It was May’s job to control the men’s environment, overseeing the slow, precisely-calculated decompression procedure that kept them from harm.
News of an approaching typhoon prompted May to start the decompression process. But the barge skipper, Jimmy, was not about to evacuate the danger zone: “He was one of the most charismatic men I’ve ever met,” Jon remembers. “He was crazy in that he kept going when no man ought to, but equally he was the kind of guy that people would follow in the face of death.” To suspend the pipe laying, here in deep waters, would have been expensive. And Jimmy, he says, “had this reputation, ‘I am gonna lay pipes, no matter what.’”
By morning, Jimmy had at last begun to move the barge away, but the weather was fast turning bad. A typhoon was now confirmed to be coming right at them, and the divers’ chamber would be horribly vulnerable. To Jon May’s superintendent, Ken, fell the task of telling the divers of the danger they were in. Over the system intercom he explained the stark choice they must make: either decompress in double-quick time and risk emerging from the chamber injured or dead, or sit tight, sink with the whole barge if it went down, and hope for an underwater rescue in three or four days. The divers listened in grim silence.
“We reckoned the chances of bringing everybody up without serious effects were 50-50 at best,” says May. “Serious effects can be blindness, paralysis, deafness, destroyed sense of balance, impotence, you name it. So it’s a policy of desperation, but it may just save lives when nothing else will. But we had to give them the choice. It’s not for us to decide without their consent. We must say, ‘This is the score lads, we are in dire trouble. The chances of the barge sinking are very high. We can either let the valves open and go like hell for the surface, which will probably leave at least half of you severely injured, and certainly in excruciating pain from bubbles. Or we can blow you down to a depth greater than the bottom depth, which means that if the barge does sink, the chamber stays sealed, the water can’t get in. Then wait for rescue, we’ll try and get another dive team to you.’
“They had emergency oxygen cylinders inside the system, so they wouldn’t have asphyxiated. They probably had three to four days before the gas went bad. But the big problem is temperature. You can die of hypothermia in 24 hours. Once you get below a certain level the best temperature you’ve got is between one and four degrees centigrade. It saps your will to live… You’ve got to keep it unemotional, but you’re not a robot, these are people you’ve worked with closely and you know that the best you can offer is not much of a chance.”
The trapped men decided to stay put. They would gamble on the barge surviving the typhoon. “Knowing divers,” Jon says, “I think most of them would sooner face death than face the sort of maiming that would probably result from a rapid decompression. Their whole life has been this gung-ho, ‘let’s get out there and do it’ lifestyle. I don’t regard disability as the end of the world, but I think a lot of them would. So it was the only decision they could have made.”
Meanwhile on deck the hurricane had arrived and was about to claim its first victim. “The conditions in a typhoon are horrendous. You get massive wave motion, up to 40 or 50 feet. It’s like living in a fluid earthquake. The windspeed is so lethal, you cannot walk across the deck without security lines, because the wind will simply pick you up and chuck you in the ocean.” A length of metal coil, used to join sections of pipeline, unravelled in the blasts and whipped about like a giant steel blade. As the nearest medic, May was summoned to help a deckhand who’d been struck right in the neck. The man’s blood streamed in wind-blown rivulets across the deck. But there was nothing to be done for him. He had practically been decapitated.
The horror had begun. The afternoon sky darkened to a ghostly twilight as clouds were sucked into the typhoon’s vortex. Rain beat down while wind shrieked at deafening volume. “You can’t hear thunder because of the wind, but you see this flicker of lightning all the time. Everything seems to be shades of black and green. And barges are not the most aerodynamic beasts, so huge waves – massive lumps of water – hit the big flat sides and break over them.” The deadly turning point occurred when waves dislodged a vast rack of heavy gas cylinders, which then ripped through a steel hatchway. “It was like being attacked with a can-opener,” May recalls. “And that converted a bad situation into an impossible one, because we were now taking in water.”
The giant barge was doomed. Jimmy gave the order to abandon ship. And yet, inside the circular eye of the typhoon, there came an eerie stillness. “You have a centre where it’s quiet, about 150 miles across. It’s extraordinary. You still have wave motion, but the wind speed drops to a gentle breeze. It’s like a humid summer day, the sky brightens and the sun comes out. You think, ‘Oh lovely!’ But you know it’s going to come back from the other direction. It’s a false dawn.” Crew members scrambled for the lifeboats. But as Jon May knew, that was not an option for the divers in the pressure chamber. There was nothing he could do except leave them to their fate.
His last exchanges with the team had been hard enough. They answered his intercom messages in terse monosyllables. In the background he could hear a man weeping softly. Through the sealed lockers he passed them some supplies, and collected their letters for home. If anything, he felt like a jailer keeping watch on Death Row. Now, preparing to abandon his control room, May turned off the video screen that monitored the condemned men by their bunks. “Basically I could not sit there and watch any longer. It just seemed intrusive, like watching the worst kind of pornographic movie. I was extremely emotional. It was beyond what I could take. It’s a bad thing for a medic to feel helpless. One of our big pay-offs is that no matter how bloody or bad conditions are, you feel ‘Well, I can do something here, I can help.’ But when you get to the point where you can’t…”
Nor could he bring himself to re-open the intercom one last time: “No, I couldn’t say a tactful goodbye, or even good luck. There was nothing to be said under those circumstances.” As he left, a diver’s face stared wordlessly at him through the chamber’s porthole. “They must have known then that we were finally on an abandon. They must have seen people going past in life jackets.”
Jon May got to a lifeboat moments before it cast off; in a matter of minutes the flooded barge was turning over. He joined about thirty others inside the enclosed fibre-glass craft as it pitched and bobbed upon the mountainous waves. “It was like a white-knuckle ride,” he says; his first task was to hand out sea-sickness tablets. Once clear of the barge they began the hunt for survivors floating around the hulk. Meanwhile, tow-ropes severed, the tugboats kept a quarter-mile distant, fearful that their propellers might chew up the men in the water. Soon the lifeboat hauled a victim on board, only for Jon to find his attempts at resuscitation were in vain. The man was pushed back in the water. “That sounds callous, to dump the body back. If we possibly can we recover bodies, because there’s always a relative to consider and it makes the grieving process easier if you do have someone to grieve for. But in a lifeboat looking for survivors, you have no time or space to waste. It’s a cruel necessity.”
A second lifeboat pulled closer to the wallowing barge, where a man was still clinging to the side. He let go, probably hoping to swim to his rescuers. But then Jon saw “a giant hillock of water, perhaps 20 foot high” that took the man from view and banged the vessel against the barge. When the wave subsided, all that remained of the lonely figure was “a grotesque splotched red pattern,” a human outline imprinted upon the ship’s dark hulk. The next wave washed it away.
Equally terrible was another sight that met May’s gaze. Gleaming raw metalwork revealed how waves had torn the diving system clean off the barge. The containers, the chamber and its human cargo would now be sinking to the ocean bed. Had the barge stayed afloat, with the chamber attached, eventual rescue was not inconceivable. But now all hope was virtually extinguished. Suppressing his grief, May redoubled his efforts to pull survivors into the lifeboat. Another six were hauled to safety.
The typhoon, as expected, returned in all its brutal force. May and the rest were now taken aboard one of the tugs, The Red Merlin, where he and a fellow medic threw themselves into the chaotic task of tending to the injured. “That part is very confused,” he reports. “I don’t think either of us was in any state to treat casualties. We do have somewhat illicit chemical means of coping – most installations have them around in case of the worst scenario, when there is no choice but to keep going – but they’re a very poor way of doing things. They keep you awake, but whether they do a deal of good for your judgement is something else.” It was, he recalls, “a very heavy night. I remember setting an open fracture which was really messy, with the possibility of enormous bleeding, and something I probably wouldn’t have done in a normal state of mind.” But then, as he notes, “In offshore medicine, God helps those who help themselves.”
Back on land in Malaysia, May learned more about the disaster. Of the 16-man British team, all survived except the six divers in the chamber. Their system had stayed intact as it sank to the seabed, where it was recovered by a dive ship a few days later. All their bodies were found – four were inside the chamber, where hypothermia would have claimed them before gas ran out, while two were outside, probably after risking a rush for the surface. “At least,” reflects Jon, “they got to the bottom alive, they had time to make a rational decision, though they knew the chances of survival were precious little.”
A thoughtful, caring sort of man, May felt unusual bitterness towards Jimmy, the barge skipper, and was unmoved to hear that he had perished. Apparently the captain was spotted, just before the end, sitting at his chart table looking at a photo of his family. “Really?” went May’s response to the news. “I can’t feel sorry for that crazy bastard. How many children are orphaned tonight? How many fucking widows did he leave behind with his gung-ho stunts? I hope he rots.” Time has softened his feelings – he now thinks of Jimmy as an experienced but over-confident man who simply made a misjudgement, under commercial pressures, by not ditching the pipeline earlier. But May is still angry that the diving system did not include a hyperbaric lifeboat – compulsory in other parts of the world – to which the decompressing men could have evacuated. “The hard part for us was that our men didn’t have the same opportunity as the rest. They couldn’t get away.”
Jon May has not left the industry. He continues to work under difficult and dangerous conditions. For all its drawbacks, he says, the work breeds a comradeship you would not find elsewhere. He only hopes that tragedies like that in the South China Sea will serve to remind people of “the real price of oil.”
Read a few more true-life dramas here: