I'm contributing to the down-hole disasters theme this month. I usually try to stay on a lighter note, but this happened to me in 1976, and is a good example of a combination of Murphy's law and human error. Our industry is dangerous enough, and tragedy lurks around the corner if we slack off on any standard safety procedure at all.

I was pushing tools for a small well service company out of Manvel, Texas. My rig was servicing storage wells in Mt. Belleview, Texas. We were working daylight only five days a week. Long commute, but a pretty good job. One of the other pushers had a rig down at Danbury, Texas, doing a deep well gas completion. He had been down there on the job 24/7 for about 30 days and was starting to get burned out. He asked me if I would relieve him for a Sunday so he could get away for a few hours. No problem; he'd do it for me and, besides, it only was about 15 miles from the house.

I got to the rig pretty early Sunday morning and looked things over. They were running wire-line tools in the well, and that probably was going to take all day. Looked like a pretty easy day to me. The other pusher was finishing up his paperwork and getting his laundry together to go to town.

The crew was washing the rig and generally taking it easy while the wire-line guys did their thing.

To get ready for the wire-line crew, the night crew had pulled the pipe out of the hole and stood it back in the derrick. We were pretty deep for the rig, but I had run that rig deeper, so I wasn't too worried about derrick capacity. We had 13,600 feet of 2 7⁄8-inch tubing, 300 feet of drill collars and 300 feet of wash pipe stood back in the derrick, and boy-howdy, it was full.

About 10 a.m., several of us were standing on the rig floor (18 feet high over a high-pressure BOP stack), changing tools when a gust of wind blew through and a couple stands of pipe came out of the fingers on the monkey board, falling across to the other side of the derrick. I looked up and realized that the night derrick man had forgotten to secure his safety chains on all that pipe! My derrick hand was on the floor, and I told him to get up their and secure that pipe RIGHT NOW! As he started up the derrick, another stand of pipe, and then another, slipped out of the fingers and crossed the derrick. I realized that he was not going to be able to handle it by himself.

I told the crew that he needed some help, but none of them would climb. I ain't allergic and had spent my time on the monkey board, so I started up the ladder. The derrick hand was on the monkey board, trying to stop what was fast becoming an avalanche of pipe coming out of the fingers and crashing across the derrick. I was climbing as fast as I could to help him stop it.

When I got up on the ladder right across from the board, I looked out and saw the off-side guy line come out of the ground! The derrick lurched over about 6 inches and then slowly started over. I saw the derrick hand go over the back of the board toward the reserve pit, and that was the last I remember 'til I woke up in Houston, in intensive care, 10 days later.

It took a long time to reconstruct what had happened, but when a 112-foot derrick loaded with 225,000 pounds of pipe goes over, it's going to make a mess and hurt people!

The casualties:

The driller jumped off the offside of the floor into a junk basket full of slips and elevators and miscellaneous iron, and broke one leg badly enough to get a titanium shin bone and a bad limp. Never went back on a rig.

The derrick hand was not hurt by a 60-foot fall because he fell chest deep in the reserve pit and was stuck for some time, but the pipe shifting and his sudden exit over the back of the board almost totally removed his left bicep. They eventually took part of his gluteus maximus muscle and reconstructed his arm. Permanent disability.

One of the floor hands made it down the back stairs and was temporarily pinned under the draw-works. No serious injuries, but he had enough. Never went back on a rig.

I rode the derrick to within 20 feet of the ground before I bailed. I hit the top of the generator house and went over the edge, breaking both legs. I hit a mud centrifuge unit headfirst, splitting my skull, breaking my cheek bone and knocking my left eye out of socket. Add six broken ribs to the tally.

The other hand on the floor was a new guy; it was his first week on the job. When the derrick started over, he froze up on the floor. He held on until the floor was nearly vertical and the impact knocked him loose. He fell in the first mud pit right under the shale shaker. Within an instant, all the weight of the pipe and derrick hit the shaker and drove it down on him. He was pinned from the waist down. There only was about 6 inches of mud in the pit so he didn't drown. It took cranes and welders six hours to cut the pipe off of him. Doctors were in attendance, but when they picked up the last of the weight, the shock took over and he expired right there.

He was conscious the whole time.

When the derrick went over, the crown went through the center of the pusher's trailer. He was sitting in the front and it missed him by about 6 feet. He came out the door, took one look at the carnage around him, got in his car and had a nervous breakdown. Retired shortly thereafter.

After six months of recovery, I was the only one on that crew who went back on a rig.

After a very long inquiry - years - it was determined that several factors contributed to the accident. First, we were rigged up in a rice field, and the ground wasn't substantial enough to hold the anchors. Second, the pusher who had rigged up had moved his forward anchors very close together to help brace the derrick for the heavy loads. This made the anchor set-up essentially a three-point, rather than the required four-point, set-up. Finally, the night derrick hand had not finished securing his pipe when he came out of the hole the night before. Add one gust of wind on a beautiful Sunday morning and we had a disaster. A life was lost, and many changed over a combination of careless mistakes and bad luck.

I'll try to lighten up a little next month, but in the meantime, keep your eyes open for the kind of things that can sneak up on you, and prevent them.