Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dancing with Death

Bob the On-Screen Scientist recently wrote some stories about brushes with
that he's had. I'm not as good a writer as he is, but I have had a
few near misses that if they had gone slightly differently I could have been
squished, broken or splattered.

The most recent was a near car wreck we had on I-10 back in 2004,
and it was one of the first things I blogged about. If it hadn't been for
the company's defensive driving training that is manic about looking in
the mirror when braking, we would have been the white part of a tractor-
trailor oreo.

I've had some near misses working on oil rigs over 15 years. It is much safer
working on the rigs today, when I started in 1991 there was still a macho attitude
that we had to do dangerous things rather than ask the roughnecks that worked
up in the derrick to do them for us. Now safety programs amongst the rig crews
enforce pussification for them as well, and something that is clearly dangerous
can be called dangerous.

For our equipment to work we need several sensors installed on the rig floor
and up in the derrick. Since one of the sensors costs around $2k and can be
destroyed by over-torqueing, it was company policy that we had to ride up on
air hoists to install them (nothing was more important than safety, except $2000).
The rig hands go up in the derrick on a daily basis, but I typically went up in the
derrick every two or three months, which meant that I was never really good at
it and in the few dozen times I did it I was scared every time.

One time around 1995 I was sent out with an Indian trainee. I did what was
normal for my position, I asked the trainee to go up in the derrick and install
the sensor, but he said [indian accent on] "oh no, that would be very dangerous and
I don't want to do it" [IA off]. I was stuck in the intermediate position of not wanting
to call him a pussy to get him to do it, but not wanting go up in the derrick. Finally
I said "fine, I'll do it", and stomped off to put on a riding harness.

One way to get up in the derrick is a ladder that goes up to the monkeyboard where
the derrickman works to rack drillpipe. The other way to go up in the derrick is a riding
harness, which is a belt with a small wooden chair to sit on, or the safer versions with
a belt and loops around the thighs and shoulders connected to a wire rope via a big
d-ring. The cable is picked up and lowered by a small air hoist on the rig floor, and it
runs over a sheave in the derrick. The highly trained operator is whichever roughneck
is not busy doing something else, usually the newest guy.

On that particular rig, the standpipe where I had to install the sensor was outside the
derrick, so I would have to go up 90 ft or so, climb out to the outside of the derrick then
be lowered down to the place to install the sensor. So I had the brilliant idea that instead
of carrying the connector cable with me, they could lower me down to the rig floor, I'd pick
up just the end I needed and quickly zoom back up to the top. done.

Everything went ok until I climbed outside the derrick and was lowered down. The cable
hooked on something, so even though more cable was paying out, I was sitting still while
a loop of cable was quickly growing in front of my eyes. I was screaming "whoa" and waving
my arms, then I tried "fucking whoa" and the roughneck stopped the airhoist. I could see
the loop was at least 10 feet of loose cable, and I had enough time to wonder if the leg loops
would hold me when I fell or if I would fall hard enough to squirt out like a watermelon seed
from my restraints, then fall the other 60 feet to the rig floor. Whatever was holding the cable
up stopped holding it, and the loop of cable was free. I started to fall and I could hear a high pitched girly scream coming from somewhere that ended with a "woomph" when I hit the
end of the cable. I swung around for a second then the roughneck started to lower me again.
Still alive!

Now I had to face my stupid idea. The outside of the derrick isn't vertical it's sloping outward
to it's base. I thought I could push off and sort of rappel down, but falling had pulled up the
harness so that I really couldn't push with my legs. So I basically crawled down the face
of the derrick, like an inept spiderman, almost hanging up a couple more times.

I got down and was exhausted. My Indian trainee said [indian accent on] "Joe, that
was very harrowing". [IA off]

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