BAKU (Reuters) - For the survivors of a lifeboat which hung between a blazing oil rig and 10-meter waves on a wind-lashed sea, the horror lives on while the search for the comrades they saw die is not complete.
A fire still burns from the worst ever accident in Azerbaijan's oil industry. An enquiry continues on the Dec. 4 disaster which took around 30 lives when a 27-hour storm raged across the Caspian Sea.
"When the fire started, we sat in two lifeboats, but did not put them down on the sea surface as we were afraid that a storm could break them into pieces," Allakhverdi Mamedov, who was in charge of the stricken platform above the Guneshli oil field, told Reuters.
"We were sitting and waiting for rescuers, when the hawsers of the other boat ripped, it dropped into the water and collapsed. Hawsers, which were holding other boats, broke as they did not withstand the pressure from the storm."
That lifeboat was sent plunging into the sea where the impact broke it up, spilling those on board. Only two workers from that boat survived.
Those in Mamedov's lifeboat spent the night dangling from the platform. They were only rescued the following day when, after the storm had subsided somewhat, a rescue helicopter was able to land on the platform.
Thirty workers were lost after Guneshli, operated by Azeri state energy company SOCAR caught fire after the storm caused some of the its production equipment to collapse, damaging a natural gas pipeline.
"I thought it was the last day of my life. We were afraid that the platform would blow up. The picture was horrible – heavy wind, high waves ... My very close friends died. It’s very painful to recollect that events," another worker, who declined to give his name, said.
Rescuers have discovered nine bodies and search for 21 more as well as three workers who were swept into the sea from another platform some 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) away.
The rig accident was the worst since the U.S. drilling ship Seacrest capsized during a typhoon in the Gulf of Thailand in 1989, killing more than 90 people.
The previous biggest accident on an offshore oil platform in Azerbaijan killed 22 men in 1957.
"This is the biggest tragedy in SOCAR's history. The fire on Guneshli platform was the biggest in Azerbaijan's oil industry since 1949, when the country started offshore oil production," SOCAR's vice president, Khalik Mamedov, told Reuters.
"We lost 33 men in one day and that's horrible."
"The chances of finding anyone alive equal zero," said SOCAR's first vice president, Khoshbakht Usifzade. "We lost our friends ... But we do our best to find bodies and hand them over to relatives." .
Azeri and American specialists worked together to put out fires from oil and gas wells.
"Thank to these efforts, the fire was extinguished on several wells, including one, where there was the risk of an oil spill, but some gas wells are still on fire," said Balamirza Agaragimov, chief engineer at Azneft, SOCAR's production union.
"There were abnormal weather conditions that day and we could not expect that. The wind, which lasted for 27 hours, lifted waves to 8-10 meters height," SOCAR's Khalik Mamedov said.
Critics questioned safety measures on the platform, which was built in 1984 with a 50-year operation term. "There were some shortcomings in the gas pipeline on the platform, which were difficult to identify, when the weather was normal," said Mirvari Gakhramanly, head of Azerbaijan's Oil Workers' Rights Protection Committee.
Gakhramanly, who was the first to report fatalities, said that mistakes had been made during the evacuation. Usifzade said the company would review safety measures on its platforms, many of which were built in Soviet times.
"We are not going to sit on our hands, of course ... Our engineers will think about new safety measures on platforms in case of very high waves," he said.
He added the company also planned to buy new lifeboats.
"Those lifeboats were modern and had been purchased in South Korea. But it seems we need to buy other lifeboats with a different modification, which are more suitable for our weather conditions," Usifzade said. The platform had daily production of 920 tonnes of oil and 1.08 million cubic meters of gas. It is one of 14 platforms on the Guneshli oilfield. SOCAR produces about 60 percent of its oil from Guneshli.
Unlike for other major oil producers, foreign companies do not provide servicing for SOCAR-led platforms, a total number of 193 and most of them build in 1980s.
British oil major BP, which accounts for around 75 percent of Azeri oil production, runs a total of eight platforms. BP said that its operations were not affected by the outage.
Valery Nesterov, a veteran analyst with Moscow-based Sberbank CIB, said that offshore oil and gas production is always associated with big risk, even if safety is on the highest level.
"Such accidents are again raising a big question over the need to explore Arctic offshore," Nesterov said.
Additional reporting by Olesya Astakhova in Moscow; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Katya Golubkova, Christian Lowe and William Hardy