During the eighties a very large storm had caused the grounding and the loss of several ships in the Algerian waters.
Several shipwrecks lay in the port of Oran and another had sunk in the harbour of Algiers.
As this represented a risk to navigation, a wreck removal market had been launched and the contract had been given to the company I worked for in those years to remove them by one way or another.
In 86, all wrecks except one had been removed and the one left was the MINISEA who was lying on its starboard side at a depth of 24 m in front of Algiers.
The procedure adopted to remove the wreck consisted to cut the vessel in three parts of about 500 T, lift them and drop them in deeper waters.
The first operation on that wreck was to extract a maximum of lead minerals that still was inside the ship in order to make her less heavy but also to clear the areas where would take place the cuts.
This first phase of work had already begun a few weeks before my arrival on the site and when I came on board of the COMEX II on the 8 January 87, much of the ore had already been recovered.
That lifting barge I was going to work on during the next few weeks was far from having the comfort of some other barges as indeed the living containers took water from everywhere.
But this discomfort was quickly forgotten thanks to the chef-coq who made the best meals I had ever eaten.
On board there were thirteen people consisting among others of the barge master, five riggers, one diving supervisor, four divers, the chef-coq and our cat Felix.
This entire people made a very good and enjoying team.
In order to take my bearings I passed the second day of my arrival to make a complete survey of the wreck because although we were in the Mediterranean Sea the visibility was not very good. It is true that we were in the winter and at this time of the year, the sea was often bad. Water also was a bit cold as she turned to about 8° C which for the chilly guy I am was not very funny.
In addition, I was a bit upset to learn that the project manager had only foreseen 6 mm wetsuit for the divers and I was not happy to dive in these conditions.
Result, after my second dive I decided although it was a bit uncomfortable, to wear a second wet vest above the first one and so I could now spend my 2 hours under water without suffering too much from the cold.
At the beginning, most of my dives were due to cut panels out of the side so as to have access to the latest cubic meters of ore mud which were then pumped with a Toyo pump.
Then, once all the ore was removed, we started cutting the wreck laterally from one side to the other.
The cutting was done with Broco exothermic rods, and thus no need to say that we take particular care to make a lot of gas venting windows to avoid the accumulation of explosive gasses.
Explosion hazard was either not the only risk present during the cutting. Structural tension was also present almost everywhere in the wreck and we had to take care to position ourselves at the good place because sometimes the plates parted abruptly several tens of centimetres at the end of a cut.
On the 26 January we had already well advanced in our work and we were ready to start the cutting of a new section.
It was a crew change day, and two of the divers were waiting for the speed boat which was announced in the next few minutes.
But the time went by and no boat at sight.
Our diving supervisor get impatient to the point that around 9 o’clock he decided to send Olivier in the water and designed me as his standby diver.
Once ready, the diver started his dive by installing a down line.
As usual, I was fully dressed with my stand by gear but unfortunately that day I was taken by a sudden urge to go to the loo and therefore ask to leave my post for a certain time.
When I came back on deck, I was only dressed with my neoprene pants and boots and it was then that all of a sudden a big BOUM shook the barge.
Immediately I knew that the diver had suffered a big explosion.
On the phone there were no more signs of life, the supervisor had lost phone contact with the diver. Immediately the two colleagues jumped on the umbilical and were now trying to bring the diver back to the surface.
Unfortunately, the umbilical jammed somewhere in the wreck and it was impossible to pull him up.
What could I do? Continue to equip myself as the Sup had asked me to do.
That meant put on my neoprene vest, my bailout, my band mask and the umbilical.
No question I thought it would have taken too much time.
So the only thing I did was to put on my fins, take a scuba bottle and a mask and jump in the water.
BRRR !!!! water was very cold without my vest, but in any event no question to stop my descent.
While I was following the diver’s umbilical I told myself that it was probably too late for my mate because with such an explosion there should be little chance that he survived.
Once on the bottom, I was quickly able to locate him in the hold and thanks god, I saw that he was still breathing.
He was unconscious, and therefore as prescript by our procedure I opened his free flow to give him a lot of air.
I had now to bring him out of the hold so that he could be pulled to the surface.
I could feel that the guys on deck took care of the umbilical because once he was free the diver to go up.
Obviously, the surface was not aware of the condition of the diver and the beginning of the recovery was too fast.
Immediately I gripped the umbilical and gave them a one pull stop signal.
Immediately the progression ceased.
I then gave them a three pulls signal on the line and the ascent did resume at a more normal speed.
During ascent I could observe my colleague and saw that he had reopened his eyes wondering probably what had happened to him.
Once on the surface it was not very easy to take the diver out of the water because although he was conscious, he was absolutely unable to come up at the diving ladder.
To take him out, I was obliged to fix a rope to his harness and 3 men were then needed to hoist him out of the water.
As for me, I was happy to get out of the water because although I had only stayed a few minutes in the cold water, I was starting to freeze.
On the deck floor, Eric was busy to remove the diver’s helmet and after a few seconds, Olivier could again breathe free air.
His glaze was still haggard but he was now quite conscious and answered correctly to our questions.
For one moment, we thought to transfer him into our recompression chamber but as he only dived for a short time we didn’t fear a decompression accident.
Off course we did a general examination to verify his state.
Apparently there wasn’t any fracture, but the diver complained from ears pain and suffered vertigo.
Although his external signs seemed not too serious we needed to be sure that the diver didn’t suffer any internal bleeding due to the pressure of the shock wave.
Therefore, the barge master made a radio call for assistance and it was decided to send the diver to the hospital as soon as possible with the speed boat that had now arrived with the new divers.
Once the wounded evacuated ashore we had a look at the diving gear and there we could see that the communication cable had been cut at the entry of the helmet by the force of the explosion explaining why we lost contact with the diver.
At the end of morning the two new divers were installed, I had taken a long warm shower to heat up again and the rest of the team was again a bit more relax and thus the supervisor decided to resume work.
No need to say that once at the bottom I took at least a quarter of an hour to analyse what happened the previous dive.
The cut Olivier had to do consist to make an opening in the engine room in order to install a lifting sling.
Apparently, it was at the moment of igniting his first rod to make the venting hole that the explosion occurred.
As we had not yet burned in this part of the wreck, the only possible explanation was that the machine room contained some explosive decaying gas due to stored products.
The problem was that we needed to reach this place and therefore I had to continue the work of the unfortunate diver.
Although I told myself that normally the explosion must have consumed all the dangerous gas, I could not prevent myself to burn my first rod with a stretched harm while at the same time I turned my head in order to avoid an eventual frontal blast wave.
After having consumed my rod, I was sure there would be no explosion hazards for the moment and I started to cut as usual.
Later in the day, we learned that Olivier suffered numerous bruises, had the two eardrums perforated, but didn’t suffered any internal bleeding.
The rest of the job went without major problems and on the 22 February the last piece of wreck was dropped in the waters.
- Never continue a dive without a stand by diver
- Use a LARS
- Know the pulling signals