This blog post was written by Megan MacKinnon, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Megan!
The sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig was a tragedy that felt close to home for Newfoundlanders for many reasons. The rig, a workplace for many Newfoundlanders, sank just off the shores of St. John’s. The majority of crewmates who passed in the accident resided in Newfoundland, leaving the Island to grieve for their loss. The sinking of the rig beginning discussions of workplace safety offshore struck a chord with many Newfoundlanders finding trade jobs in remote, and often dangerous situations. In many ways, it is safe to say all of Newfoundland felt the loss that dark day in February.
The Ocean Ranger was the world’s largest semisubmersible oilrig, about 315km off the coast of St. John’s Newfoundland within the Hibernia oil field (Collier, 2010).
“The Ocean Ranger was a self-propelled, semi-submersible offshore drilling rig, designed and built by ODECO (Offshore Drilling and Exploration Company) for use in offshore oil exploration. At 121 metres long, 80 metres wide, and 103 metres tall, it was the largest rig of its kind when it was launched in 1976.” (Collier, 2010) On February 15th of 1982 tragedy struck when a winter storm passed over the area forecasted winds of 90 Knots and waves up to 37 feet, sinking the rig (Collier, 2010). The Federal-Provincial Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster found the cause of the rig’s sinking to be that seawater entered its ballast control room through a broken porthole and caused an electrical malfunction in the ballast panel controlling the rig’s stability (Pitt, 2006). This accident took the lives of all 84 crewmembers, 56 of which were Newfoundlanders (Pitt, 2006). The tragedy was felt across the entire province and resulted in inquiries about workplace safety for the workers of the rig. The Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster determined that much of the hazards could be attributed to flaws of the workplace itself, “the shattered portlight and chain lockers that were not water tight, for instance. The crew did not fully understand what to do in the case of an emergency involving the Ranger’s ballast control system. The lifesaving equipment was judged inadequate, and the crew lacked training in its use (Collier, 2010).” These combined factors contributed to the great loss of life in Newfoundland that day and began an important discussion of workplace safety for those who work away within our province.
The Ocean Ranger Monument and garden, designed by Scottish-born artist Stewart Montgomerie was unveiled in St. John’s three years after the disaster (Letto, 1985). The monument intentionally frames the Atlantic Ocean and St. John’s harbour from the top of Confederation hill. The sculpture holds a plaque listing the names of those who lost their lives in the disaster. The monument sits within a small surrounding garden, enclosed by trees known as “The Ocean Ranger Memorial Garden”.
The garden is located in the Pippy Park Area within the Confederation Building’s East Block. The sculpture that sits in the center is comprised of two tall white pillars with sharp edges and a jagged connection at the center. The sculpture’s design represents the contrasting feelings of “exposure to the elements” and “comfort and solace”(Letto, 1985).
The statue’s maker, Steward Montgomerie, was born in 1941 in Glasgow, Scotland, and moved to Corner Brook with his family in 1952 (Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, 2013). He pursued studies of art and welding out of province before returning to Newfoundland in 1961 (Heritage NL, 2013). At this time he became the artist of residence for Bowater’s of Newfoundland, beginning his career in Newfoundland art (Heritage NL, 2013).
The monument serves the people of Newfoundland, as a physical place to grieve the loss of loved ones. Many of the families could not retrieve their remains and therefore use the sculpture as a place to find solace when grieving their loss. The plaque with the list of names serves as a memorialization of the men who lost their lives. These names contribute to the memory of individual persons and their legacies (Letto, 1985). This tangible place to pay respects contributes to the monument’s initial purpose of providing a feeling of comfort. Other visitors to the monument believe it serves as another reminder of memory within our province to protect the health and safety of our trades’ workers (Letto, 1985). In this way, the sculpture serves its purpose of reminding Newfoundlander’s just how harsh the elements can be for those working offshore. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop contributes to both understandings of the statue, and our living memory of the Ocean Ranger as a province.
The Ocean Ranger Memorial Garden surrounding the statue provides life to the space and contributes to the calm atmosphere. The trees enclosing the space provide a bit of privacy to those visiting the site. Memorial gardens are a popular form of monumentality for a number of reasons. “Creating memorial gardens promotes healing. Maintaining them is therapeutic. The gardens not only keep alive their memories, but also provide beauty to those who see them even if they didn’t know whom you are remembering.” (Perry, ND) The garden’s placement adjacent to the Confederation building serves to remind not only its visitors but also the politicians who pass it each day of the importance for the safety of workers in Newfoundland.
The tragedy of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger was felt not only across Newfoundland but also worldwide for those working in the Oil and Gas industry. The great loss of life that happened on that day in 1982 contributed to the ongoing conversation about how to continuously access safety within the workplace. When regulations go unchecked, the Ocean Ranger shows us how it can impact the lives of those living in Newfoundland. As our population is small the scale of the tragedy was amplified on our island leaving nearly everyone affected in some way. If a Newfoundlander did not know a crewmember or their loved ones, they do know someone who works away, and faces a similar risk daily, making the province empathetic and aware of the nature of the incident.
The sinking of the Ocean Ranger impacted safety and equipment regulations for the oil and gas industry worldwide including the construction of the new Hibernia Platform (Collier, 2010). The oil and gas Industry is a primary source of income for Newfoundlanders so fears regarding workplace safety still live within almost 40 years later. The Minister of Natural resources Sibohan Coady reflected on this at the most recent Ocean Ranger Memorial Service, “We remember those lost on the Ocean Ranger 38 years ago. This tragedy will forever impact the lives of so many and will forever make us acutely aware of the power of the sea. It has also taught us lessons that are helping to inspire better emergency procedures and enhanced emergency training for our offshore workers. We will continue to ensure safety is paramount in our offshore.”
The Ocean Ranger monument serves as a memorial to not only the lives lost that day in 1982 but also the realities that offshore workers face when exposed to the elements. The monument will go on to serve as a holder of the living memory of the Ocean Ranger disaster and the lives lost. The memory of the Ranger and its crew will continue to contribute to the safety of oil and gas workers globally.
Collier, K. (2010, October). The Loss of the Ocean Ranger, 15 February 1982. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/economy/ocean-ranger.php.
Letto, D. (1985). Ocean Ranger memorial unveiled – CBC Archives. https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/ocean-ranger-memorial-unveiled.
Memorial service to be held for those lost in Ocean Ranger disaster. (2016, February 15). https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/memorial-service-to-be-held-for-those-lost-in-ocean-ranger-disaster-1.2778024.
Perry, L. Memorial Gardens. Department of Plant and Soil Science. https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/memorial2.html.
Pippy Park. Natural and Cultural Features. Pippy Park St. John’s NL. http://www.pippypark.com/natural-and-cultural-features.asp.
Pitt, R. (2006). Ocean Ranger. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ocean-ranger.
Stewart Montgomerie. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. (2013). https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/arts/stewart-montgomerie.php.
Whiffen, G. (2020, February 15). Marking the Ocean Ranger tragedy in Newfoundland and Labrador: The Telegram. https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/marking-the-ocean-ranger-tragedy-in-newfoundland-and-labrador-411592/.