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Survival by Random Chance

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Survival or death can pivot on the smallest things. When I was kid, I grew up in the Texas panhandle where my Dad worked as a chemist in the oil patch. By the mid-1950s, the heyday of Panhandle oil production was over, but there was still a lot of drilling in the Canadian River basin.

It was always an event when a well "came in." One Sunday morning, my Dad bumped out a dirt road to a field near Borger and I came along for the ride. As I recall, there was a little forest of wells and he was talking to one of the maintenance men about something when we heard an ear splitting hiss behind us.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I was watching a well blowout. I recall practically soiling my pants as the rig crew came off that platform in five different directions running for their lives. Shortly thereafter, a geyser of brownish gray drilling mud shot out of the well bore to a height at least twice that of the derrick. Then, the really amazing thing, an entire string of drill pipe followed the mud, gracefully arced through a cloudless sky and splashed into the mud pond next to the rig. It was probably over in under a minute.

We were far enough away, but the roughnecks were plastered in mud from head to foot. I thought of that when I watched this interview with Mike Williams, a Deepwater Horizon survivor. His comment about mud being everywhere reminded me of that day in Texas. The interview is absolutely riveting.

But the takeaway is a comment he makes toward the end of the interview. Several workers had escaped the burning rig in a life raft still attached to the rig with a painter line. And because the company had a policy prohibiting knives on the rig, no one had any means of cutting the line to a rig which was burning and sinking. Eventually, someone produced a tool and hacked the line, and the survivors escaped.

As pilots—operators of machinery moving at high speed that usually functions correctly but sometimes doesn't—most of us are equally complacent about the simplest survival steps. We don't carry first-aid kits in the airplane, no water, no fire extinguishers, no basic tools to sever a tangled seatbelt. Although I try to pay attention to things like this, I'm just as guilty of complacency as anyone.

Listen to this interview—I have twice—and you may have your eyes opened about preparation for survival in general, not to mention being more informed about the risks we expect people to take to produce the oil we rely upon to fuel our airplanes.

Comments (8)

As much as I may disagree with doing so, I can understand the rational behind commercial pilots/passengers not being allowed a blade. However, when I go flying, I refuse to do so without a knife somewhere about my person.

What I CAN'T understand is why in the world a company would have a policy prohibiting blades in an environment like an oil rig. To me, that constitutes "must-have" equipment.

Maybe someone could fill me in here?

Posted by: Kyle Pack | May 24, 2010 8:30 PM    Report this comment

Regarding why knives might be banned: I've got no experience on rigs/platforms in the US, but have worked in the UK North Sea. I would guess knives are banned (or at least discouraged) because the use of knives without protective gear (chainmail gloves) causes lots of injuries. The idea is to treat the knife as a tool with a specific function and associated safety equipment, rather than a thing you carry around because it might come in handy.

Of course, that doesn't translate well to the survival situation. There would be dozens of ways of attaching a raft to the vessel that wouldn't require a knife to release it, though. (I seem to remember from the last survival training I did that the supplies in the raft include a knife of some kind, but I could be wrong).

Remember that the survival situation is incredibly rare compared to the everyday risk of losing a digit while wielding your knife in a masculine, kack-handed fashion.

Posted by: Ceri Reid | May 26, 2010 7:42 AM    Report this comment

The life rafts on our overwater-equipped ATRs had a packet sewn to the side that included a tool to cut the mooring line (with all its sharp corners thoroughly protected so as not to puncture the raft itself).

Posted by: Chris Lawson | May 26, 2010 7:58 AM    Report this comment

Ceri, I see your point. I guess that makes sense, even if I don't like it. Still, in 15+ years of using knives, I've only cut myself a couple of times. I think the benefits outweigh the risks, but I guess not all companies feel as I do.

Chris, I was also a tad surprised there wasn't something on the raft designed to cut the painter.

Posted by: Kyle Pack | May 26, 2010 9:43 AM    Report this comment

What a timely article. Planning for our annual two week flying vacation, I want an axe on-board to cut my way out of the yellow spam can should we hit something in a less than graceful manner & survive. This in addition to a divers knife, 2x 9mm pistols, a very complete 1st aid kit, blankets, water, survival mirror & protein bars. Sorry can't find any flares. Most of this is not, to my knowledge, FAA approved... let them survive their way & I'll survive my way. How's that for attitude?

Posted by: David Spencer | May 26, 2010 10:01 AM    Report this comment

I carry a pocket knife, always have. Growing up in the cotton fields and wooded pastures of West Texas, no one was without one. My knife still is the most frequently used item in my pocket, except for money. It is a little inconvenient to make sure I put it in the check-in bag when I fly the airlines (I've only once had to pay the ten bucks to have it shipped back to me.) but I don't leave home without it. The blade is only 2", but that is enough to cut through seat belts or mooring lines if I needed to. It is a thoroughly useful every-day tool, for survival it might be an essential item, although, fortunately, I've never had such an occasion. I'm 73, so maybe I will get through this life without an emergency that requires a knife.

Don Smith

Posted by: Don Smith | May 27, 2010 9:17 AM    Report this comment

I hear ya' Don. For a country boy, a pocket knife is just a part of life. One of my earliest memories is getting a pocket knife for a birthday present. My father took the time to teach me the proper use and safety of a knife, just as he taught me to safely use and respect firearms. Pocket knife: don't leave home without it!

I think the bigger issue of being prepared for emergencies is mostly a matter of common sense. While no amount of planning can prepare you for all possibilities, having no plan at all is not smart.

Posted by: Roger Mullins | May 29, 2010 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I'v been working in the field of offshore drilling for close to forty years. While safety must remain a number one priority the no pocket knife policies some companies put in place are simply assinine. Training on the proper use would be much more logical. These policies may marginally reduce the number of minor cut injuries but put employees in the position of having to use the wrong tool for the job when the ocrrect tool is thus not available. Like some of the others have commented, my pocket knife goes in my pocket when my keys go in. It's been that way since I was maybe eight or ten years old.

Posted by: Dan Becker | May 29, 2010 4:59 PM    Report this comment

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