In the early hours of November 5th, 1983, two divers were laying down to rest in a decompression chamber off the coast of Norway. They were part of the Byford Dolphin‘s diving team. The Dolphin was part of the Norwegian government’s drilling push into the rich oil reserves located on their continental shelf. It was tough work in cold conditions, but paid well.

At 4:00 AM, another two divers entered the decompression facility through a diving bell, a kind of deep-sea elevator. Adhering to procedure, one of the new arrivals closed the bell door, and then increased the cabin pressure to seal the door shut. Preparing for full decompression, he was about to shut the opening into the back cabin, where the other two divers were resting, when one of the divers outside the chamber detached the bell from the structure.

The space explosively decompressed. The air leaving their lungs instantly killed the two divers at the back of the chamber, as well as one of the divers who had just used the bell. The diver closest to the opening literally exploded. The change in pressure set off a chain reaction with the gasses present in his body, rupturing his chest and abdomen. His lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and long length of his spine were shot through a two-foot hole, followed by his detached extremities. Bits of his body landed on the surface of the rig. Clean-up crews found body parts on the rig’s derrick; some 30 feet from the chamber had erupted. Mercifully, the deaths were instantaneous.

The tender who opened the clamp died as well, while his assistant was severely injured. The investigation would find that the dead tender released the bell too early, before the interior had been safely decompressed. The oil company’s overtime rules had been flaunted, forcing workers to perform dangerous work in 16 hour shifts. The decompression chamber had also been obsolete for years, and lacked any of the failsafes that more modern systems had. The original investigation, however, cited human error as the primary cause of the disaster, and it would be 25 years before the families of the deceased received restitution for the tragedy.

– by Matt Albersworth