The Commercial Diver Network
On November 4, 1976, two K. D. Marine divers, Howard Spensley and Charles Meehan, were ordered into the water to recover the end of a broken pennant wire which was attached to one of the anchors of the drill rig, Ocean Voyager. Their task was not unlike the one Christopher Broady and John Clarke were ordered to perform in 1974.
It was a cold Thursday morning and Spensley, from Huddersfield, England and Meehan, from the Bronx, New York, were lowered by crane in a basket to the waterline 80 feet below. Both men were wearing wet suits and scuba gear; and to comply with the regulations, Spensley was tethered to the dive station by a lifeline. While he reportedly had voice communications with the diving supervisor, Meehan did not. Meehan was merely connected to Spensley by a five-foot buddy line which he held in his hand.
Embedded into the 1974 diving regulations, this buddy-line system was a Royal Navy diving technique that allowed the contractor to use it for commercial operations. But daisy-chaining divers in the unpredictable waters of the North Sea came with predictable risks. If the line connecting the two divers parted, it would leave Meehan at the mercy of the elements. What’s more, K. D. Marine apparently believed that the rope Meehan clutched in his hand satisfied the company’s legal obligation “to provide an effective means of communication with every diver.” It did not satisfy the more specific requirement that the diver be able to communicate with his supervisor.
On board the Ocean Voyager, there were five men in the dive crew, and no one was acting as standby diver as the law required. At 3:15 that morning, when Spensley and Meehan jumped into the freezing water, the seas were relatively mild for that time of year: eight to ten-foot waves were pounding against the Voyager columns in a running tide. The two men swam a short distance to one of the columns and submerged, but within minutes they reappeared on the surface under the anchor bolster, and in trouble. In the foamy turbulence they became separated, and as one of the eyewitnesses would later testify, Meehan was “washed off the bolster and battered underneath.” Now unconscious and face down, the Bronx diver began drifting towards the starboard side of the rig where he was eventually fished out of the water by the crew of a standby vessel and pronounced dead. Meanwhile, Spensley got hung up on the bolster as well, and when he was recovered, he too was dead. Like John Clarke, in 1974, both men had drowned.[a]
Accordingly, the Department of Energy sent a diving inspector to investigate the dual fatality who soon discovered that there had been no standby diver on alert, that Meehan had not been securely connected to Spensley, and that he had entered the water with no communications. Buddy-line system faults notwithstanding, these were all clear violations of the law which should have provided the legal branch of the DOE with sufficient grounds to initiate a prosecution. But in the immediate months that followed, the accident registered no official response from the Diving Inspectorate.
Still, the dual fatality did not escape the attention of everyone. A year after the accident, the fiscal in Aberdeen charged both K. D. Marine and the diving supervisor with breaching the regulations on eight separate counts. But when the case came into court, both defendants ended up pleading guilty and paying a small fine—not to any of the charges relating to Meehan’s lack of communications and unsecured connection to the dive station—but to a single charge of failing to provide a standby diver.
Two months later, the fiscal opened an inquiry into the accident, where an attending DOE inspector listened to a K. D. Marine project superintendent describe how the buddy-line system worked, how easily the two men became separated, and that the diver on the end of the rope had no communications.
a) Apparently Spensley was not wearing a full-faced mask during the dive. At the inquiry, the supervisor testified that when Spensley was recovered, “His face mask was still on, but the mouthpiece was out of his mouth.” Source: Spensley/Meehan FAI, p. 27.
1 Meehan/Spensley Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), p. 7, 15, 24.
2 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 22-23, 25.
3 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 6(1)(b)(i), (iii).
4 Moore FAI, p. 70-71.
5 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 19(a).
6 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 22.
7 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 9(1(e(ii), (f).
8 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 19, 31.
9 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 33.
10 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 26-27.
11 Letter from the Health and Safety Executive to the author, April 29, 1997. Charges against the company SI 1974/1229 Regulation 3(4), 8, 23; Charges against the diving supervisor Regulation 6(1)(b), 9(1)(a)(e)(f), 15.
12 Press and Journal, November 8, 1977.
13 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 70.