This is section TMM008 of THE MALONGO MEMOIRS Series.
I thought I had seen my share of big explosions and fires before. But this one topped them all. Here, I describe what occurred and what I saw just as we were leaving Malongo on our way to Cabinda airport, to start our series of routine transport connections, in transit for another rotation home. The month had been filled with heightened tension due to rebel threats of attacking the compound, as well as increasing negative influence on the local workers that threatened labor stability. As with all exit trips, I had learned not to hold my breath until we were clear of the Sahara Desert and back in Paris.
Perfect Safety Record...Not!
I remember at my first 2 months - or hitches - of being on this assignment, CAGGOC's safety record was a bit marred after a couple of serious accidents. As was usually the case, both were offshore incidents. The first was a helicopter that crashed into the water just after taking off from an oil platform. The tail boom had snagged a guy wire just as it was clearing the rig. The sudden grab of the heavy wire acted as a slingshot and slammed the chopper into the ocean within seconds after lifting off. The pilot simply couldn't react in time. I was in the Telecom shop that day, when a guy - an offshore engineer - came in asking if we could fix his hand-held radio. Apparently, it was soaking wet and the insides were undoubtedly shorted out. Turns out he was one of the passengers on the chopper and he described to us first hand what happened just less than 2 hours before. Other than minor injuries, no one was seriously hurt and everyone made it out since the safety buoys on the helicopter pylons deployed. Albeit the craft was upside down, it stayed afloat long enough for everyone to safely get out. He was laughing about it then, but I'm sure it was scary when it happened.
I had routinely heard the mandatory helicopter safety briefings, and incidents like these reminded us how everything we were repeatedly cautioned and instructed on actually applied - from overcoming disorientation of being upside down to waiting for the water pressure to stabilize before attempting to open the emergency exit doors. We tried to fix his radio by giving it several spray treatments of electronic component chemical drier. However, it was too badly water damaged and so ended up giving him a new radio.
The other incident involved a fatality on another platform. Ironically, the victim was a French safety inspector - for some reason a crane ball that was hanging above him gave way and fell directly on him. He never knew what hit him. I wasn't to realize until about a year and a half later that we could actually go close to 12 months without a safety related (or lost-time) incident.
For some reason, during this period we just could not get past 2 digits on the safety ticker.
Not all Sunsets are Pretty
As usual, by the time we were strapped in on board the 212, and the brief pre-flight checks were completed, the sun was just setting. My gauge of how we were doing on departure time was where the sun was when the rotors started firing up, and how far behind the horizon it was by the time we were over water. If all went well, we caught the perfect sunset prior to reaching Cabinda just about twilight.
A typical crew change rotating out consisted of about 4 choppers, usually a 10-passenger 212, a civilian version of the Army Huey - as shown here during boarding and a quick pre-flight.
I made it a personal customary ritual to briefly close my eyes and say a quick prayer whenever we were about to take off. I did this, no matter how routine and how often I boarded a chopper - but especially when we were flying out on rotation, because this was only the start of a day and a half long trip. And who knew what we might need protecting against. Anyway, better safe than sorry. As the engines began to roar when the throttle opened, I always assured myself that this was just another chopper flight - I'd done about a hundred in the last 2 years - and despite the recent rash of accidents and safety incidents, only one had involved a chopper actually going down, and even then there were no fatalities or serious injuries (involving our choppers, anyway). Still, you didn't take that for granted. And I couldn't help think what my friend, Paco, recently had told me indicating the concern for a chopper potentially going down or being destroyed - Paco was a purchasing and logistics specialist and a good friend from Spain. He was one of the first Chevron employees to start indoctrinating me when I had first started working the routine in Malongo. We grew to be good friends quickly - he found it amazing that someone with such a Spanish name like me could not speak the language fluently. My conversational Spanish was fair at best, and I constantly struggled between separating it from Portuguese, which I was rapidly learning by now. I'd visited Paco's home near Barcelona on several occasions, met his family, and did some fun nights of Sangria with his friends and relatives. He always called me by my full first name - Alfredo - nobody ever really called me that. At least not since the 6th grade. But it just sounded more proper to him than Al. In return, I usually called him Francisco.
So one day Paco decided to share a logistical factoid with me. He was in charge of all the ordering of equipment and merchandise and had the responsibility of keeping the shipments moving, unhampered, lest we all start experiencing a supply nightmare. In light of the political situation, the war, our semi-remote location, and government red tape, he had his job cut out for him. In his heavy Spanish accent, he asked me..."Alfredo, do you know why we maintain a supply of 12 coffins in the warehouse?" First of all, I wasn't aware we kept any coffins, and I suppose it wasn't something I ever cared to think about. "No, why?", I asked, in bewilderment. "Because the most likely single accident we might experience - and he made it a point to say not that it was expected to happen - is a 212 chopper going down!" A 212 seats exactly 12 people, including the pilot and co-pilot. Well, there was a sobering thought. "Uh...Thanks for sharing that, Francisco."
This was about our normal view from the chopper just as we cleared the shoreline.
My mental mode was just reaching that semi-state of serenity as we took off and was about to clear the shore when...a large flash caught the corner of my eye. By the time I glanced below, a huge fireball erupted. No doubt, an explosion had just occurred beneath us - most of us didn't hear anything because as was always the case, we were all wearing headsets, plus the sound of the rotors were drowning out any outside noise. Our chopper quickly banked a hard right - I wasn't sure if the pilot did this instinctively or if it was a reaction from some down-force caused by the sudden explosion and heat dissipation that quickly filled the air around us. At any rate, this was one of those times you could tell our pilot was an ex-Vietnam veteran chopper pilot. Some 90 percent of them were. While most of them were used to driving armed Hueys and attack Cobras, under fire - they were more like glorified shuttle drivers now - they pretty much flew subdued now. Although, I think most of them missed the "action" flying and so always put special touches on the controls, whenever the opportunity arose, such as now. The things this place had in common with Vietnam were the large jungle below, the climate, and the choppers everywhere (although unarmed). I always wondered if any of these guys experienced PTSD and hoped if they did, it wouldn't be while we were in-flight.
This photo was snapped from inside the chopper, just seconds after the explosion and before the fireball grew much larger and higher. Ground control requested us to make some low passes along the shoreline to get a visual on the possibility of terrorists on foot or boat.
Can We Get a Fly-by?
The next thing I realized was that we were no longer headed towards the water. We all momentarily got disorientated, as the confusion set in. By now, we were all speculating that Malongo was under some kind of attack, perhaps by mortars or rockets. We were the second chopper out, and the first one had departed just 5 minutes before us, so we were pretty sure they were already over water when the blast occurred. We all braced for secondary explosions, but none occurred. We could hear the pilot communicating with ground control, who was directing him to make a couple passes on the shore-line in order to try to get a visual on anything suspicious - rebels or terrorists on foot or on boat, or anything of that sort. By now, it was clear nobody below knew what had set off the explosion. We went down fairly low, at just about the fastest speed a 212 could go - not nearly as fast or nimble as the smaller 5-person 205 Jet Rangers.
We made a couple of passes but didn't see anything suspicious - just some people scrambling, but they appeared to be workers. I could hear the pilot or co-pilot over the radio, shouting "Negative sighting, Negative sighting!" "Do you wish us to engage further? - Come back, control!" God, they were like back in 'Nam now, I thought. After some more radio chatter, ground control directed us to continue offshore onto Cabinda as planned. "Chopper 2 - Negative on the fly-by at this time! Proceed outbound, repeat, proceed outbound!" I could see a couple inbound choppers, both Jet Rangers, that were coming in from offshore. Any choppers that were still on the ground were ordered to stay put - so we knew part of our crew change was left behind, for the time being. As we headed out over the water, and away from Malongo, I looked back and could see the magnificent fire raging. The main part of it was still clawing into the sky and a huge black plume was now forming. I could also see that it was spreading onto the water, and it actually looked like part of the ocean was burning.
When we got to Cabinda airport, people were scurrying as a result of the news of the explosion. We were full of uncertainty and speculation as to what was going on. It had not yet been clear as to what caused the huge explosion or whether anybody was hurt or killed. We quickly hooked up with the first batch of our crew change - they had touched down about 20 minutes earlier. Although we took off only 5 minutes behind them, due to the sudden flight pattern change, we just now landed. The PHI ground crew directed us to grab our gear quickly and clear the chopper, since it was needed back in Malongo now, in anticipation of medical evacs or supply runs that may be needed. Turns out our crew change counterparts didn't know much more than we did, except that at last word, there didn't appear to be any obvious rebel or terrorist activity. Although, for the time being it wasn't being ruled out. Emergency response measures had been put in motion, and by now the activity was in full swing to get the fire out and implement kill-switches and shutdowns.
Cabinda Airport - This little airport was frequently busy. Aside from CABGOC crew change 4 times per week, it was a staging area for Angolan military aircraft. U.N. relief planes also unloaded supplies here.
Hurry Up and Wait
Because of the emergency situation, we hung out at Cabinda airport a little longer than normal - I would say we were delayed by about 2 hours. We weren't too concerned though, because chances are that our Air France flight waiting in Luanda would probably be delayed as well, if not there was a good chance they would hold it for us. The CABGOC crew, along with the TEXACO crew that we met up with in Luanda, usually comprised the majority of the Trans-Saharan flight, so for that reason we were pretty sure we wouldn't miss the plane. We were soon joined by the rest of the crew change on the third and fourth choppers. They had a bit more information to share since they took off after the explosion occurred and at least the determination was made that there was no immediate hostile threat. Either terrorists were not responsible, or they did a hit and run, especially since minutes later just about the time we were over the water, the Angolan military responded and the area was crawling with them. I noticed that a few personnel that were supposed to be outgoing were not present. I later found out they were on the emergency response team and stayed behind for obvious reasons.
By the time we reached Luanda, it was about 10:30 PM, way later than usual. By now, we were normally getting bussed to our plane on the tarmac. In this case, we were just getting into the holding lounge. There, we received more information and it seemed at this point, there were believed to be no fatalities, only some burn and smoke inhalation injuries - none serious, we hoped. The Texaco crew, who flew in from nearby Congo for their rotation out, had now joined us and they had already heard the news. As a matter of fact, their facility went on full alert as a result, just in case.
I Present Below...Your Fire!
Our Air France 747 took off, delayed as a result of the events that had transpired, but since most of us were laying over in Paris for the morning, a couple hours wasn't going to hurt us. By now, the pilot and crew were fully aware of what had happened and they fed us bits of information over the loudspeaker. Someone asked one of the cabin crew personnel about the flight route we were taking. We knew we were flying north - we actually backtrack south, in order to connect at Luanda - then head the proper direction northbound, and so fly over the Congo River twice on the trip out of West Africa. So on the way north, we pass Malongo, which was our starting point. Coming in, we do the reverse, so we actually fly over the Congo River four times in one round-trip. But we didn't know how close we were going to be in proximity to the fire or if it would be visible from the air. The cabin attendant directed us to talk to the pilot, so a couple of us went to the cockpit. He showed us on a map the normal flight route. Normally, we would be about 200 miles or so from the Malongo shoreline, but he offered to fly us directly over the compound in order for us to get an aerial view of what was happening.
A few minutes later, we were over Malongo. At first, all we could see was the heavy smoke that had been saturating the skies for some hours now. A few seconds later, as we continued to stare down, our plane did a sharp bank right turn, and suddenly we could see through some clearing in the smoke - there it was! The fire was unlike anything I've seen from the sky before. Just then, the French pilot comes over the loudspeaker: "Votre attention! CABGOC personnel - I present below...your fire!" Everyone just sat in silence as we took this all in. Almost like we were witnessing something wondrous in the making. The fire looked way different now from when we first seen it right after the explosion. It was much bigger, and seeing it from this higher altitude, we can see the full geometric scope of it. As people continued to ooh and ahh, the plane did a complete 360 degrees in order for everyone to absorb the view for a few minutes. The last time I was on a plane where the pilot actually turned the aircraft around completely in-flight, in order to get a view of something, was about 15 years earlier when I happened to be in the air when a comet was streaking amidst the stars. This was much more breathtaking.
Sundays Will Never Be the Same
For the rest of the trip, in the air and in-between flights in Paris the next morning, we continued to receive bits of information. By now, word was that the fire was under control but nowhere near being put out. It was good to hear that there were no fatalities, injuries were not very serious, and all the proper fail-safe systems, including electro-mechanical shut-off valves had properly kicked in. The fire and point of burning was contained. And although some oil had spewed onto the water, and there was much burn debris, there was no threat of an ecological disaster. We learned about 10 days later, that the fire had burned for about a week before being finally put out.
Despite the initial speculation of a terrorist incident, the cause turned out to be a ruptured pipeline as the result of a landslide. Just an earth break-up, hitting the wrong pipe. Had the emergency shut-off valves not kicked in, the fire would have easily spread offshore, since the oil flow is networked via vast underwater pipeline connections that go miles to the sea. I could not even imagine the additional explosions and fires that may have occurred as a result, if the oil flow hadn't been shut down. Because of the extensive cleanup that would be required, excursions in the immediate waterways would undoubtedly be affected. Our biggest past-time during most periods was going out on the utility boats and fishing for Yellowtail Tuna off the coast. This obviously would have to be put off for a while. And so much for getting past 2 digits on the safety record ticker.
Fishing for Yellowtail on Sundays would have to be on hold for a while.