One month after the deaths of Charles Meehan and Howard Spensley in November 1976, the North Sea delivered yet another example of just how dangerous it was to send men into the North Sea daisy-chained together while diving on SCUBA. 

A little after 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, Comex divers Trevor Murtough and Michael Moore were lowered from the deck of the Sedneth 701 to the waterline. Again, the job was to reconnect a pennant wire to one of the rig’s anchors; and again, the two men were using SCUBA with the first diver connected to the dive station by a lifeline, while the second man was attached to his partner by a short buddy line and without voice communications. As Murtough would later testify, “it was just as we did it in the Navy.”[1] 

Sea conditions were nearly identical to those the month before: swells 8 to 10 feet high, wind speeds of 15-20 knots and a running tide.[2] After the two men entered the water they quickly completed the job, but it was on their return trip to the recovery basket when the dive suddenly began to go wrong.

“We were fighting our way against the tide,” Murtough would say at the inquiry.[3]  And to make matters worse, the recovery basket, which was supposed to be lowered well below the waterline to allow the divers easy entry, was only partially submerged because the barge engineer did not want the crane block exposed to salt water corrosion, unless there was an emergency.[4] 

As the people on board the rig looked on, Murtough and Moore furiously kicked to stay on location while attempting the dangerous task of entering the heavy steel basket as it was sucked out of the pitching sea one moment, then slammed down the next. Both men understood that timing their entry was critical; and after great difficulty, Murtough finally managed to struggle onto the top of the basket, not inside it, because he was afraid of having his head “gashed” in.[5] 

At this point, the line connecting the two divers slipped off Murtough’s arm and Moore began to drift away. Murtough reacted quickly and immediately paid out slack in his lifeline to hook his partner and pull him inside the basket. But after four unsuccessful attempts, an exhausted Moore finally gave up and fell back into the sea. Meanwhile, Moore’s supervisor and crewmates stared down from the rig at the unfolding drama.

Now drifting freely in the water, Moore kept his wits about him, inflated his life vest, dropped his weight belt, and signaled a “thumbs up” to the men high above on the rig. He was okay, and an old fishing trawler on station for such emergencies was nearby. The diving supervisor immediately radioed the vessel and a recovery operation got underway; Moore thought he was going to be picked up within minutes.

In the late winter afternoon darkness was falling fast and the crew of the trawler were experiencing difficulty getting a line on the bobbing figure. They tried throwing a life ring to him several times, but wind speeds had picked up to 25 knots, and the captain was having problems maneuvering the single screw vessel due to it being low on fuel and fresh water.[6] The ship had a Fast Rescue Craft on board for such emergencies, but the crew decided not to launch it because the seas were “too rough.”[7] In the waning twilight, they began to lose site of their objective. So Moore, uninjured and expecting to be rescued, drifted along with his arms raised, desperately trying to attract the attention of a vessel whose time had come to perform the job it was hired to do. The ship managed to circle two or three times, but within half an hour, its target had floated out of sight and into the darkness, never to be seen again. Sometime later, alone and frightened and with waves slapping at his face, Michael Robert Moore, age 29, married, and with a six-month-old baby boy at home, finally laid his head to his chest and gave in to the brutal cold.

As with the other SCUBA fatalities that year (Hubert and Dymott in May, Dupuy in July, Meehan and Spensley in November), the Diving Inspectorate of the Department of Energy investigated this latest mishap, but there is no evidence that it took any corrective action, no evidence that it was growing weary of the mounting death toll due to the use of SCUBA. Instead the DOE dispensed a bromide in writing three months after Moore vanished:

Such tasks as the recovering or refitting of anchor pendants on semi-submersible drilling rigs can present hazards to the diver at the surface interface in even a moderate sea or swell. Experience shows that if a diver is washed against the anchor bolsters serious damage to the diver and/or his equipment can occur. Extra care is required when deploying a diver through or near the surface interface to ensure that he is not put at risk by fouling or being washed against obstruction.[8]

Nearly a year after Michael Moore disappeared on Christmas Eve, his wife, Mrs. Jean Moore, appeared at Aberdeen Sheriff’s Court to hear evidence on the disappearance of her late husband. During the inquiry she was caught attempting to tape-record the proceedings, an offense the sheriff characterized as “contempt of court.”[9] After the tape was confiscated, Mrs. Moore told the Court, “I have a baby only 15 months old and he is going to want to know what happened to his father.”[10]



Excerpt from the book, Into the Lion's Mouth.


Endnotes:
1 Moore FAI, p. 70.
2 Moore FAI, p. 33, 75.
3 Moore FAI, p. 77.
4 Moore FAI, p. 46, 56.
5 Moore FAI, p. 86.
6 Press and Journal, September 14, 1977.
7 Press and Journal, September 14, 1977.
8 Department of Energy, Diving Safety Memorandum 5/1977.
9 Press and Journal, September 14, 1977.
10 Press and Journal, September 13, 1977.

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