As exhausted disaster crew today broke off its labors to kill the runaway oil gusher in the North Sea just a few hours short of completing their task.
The team, led by Asgar "Boots" Hansen of Houston, was said to be worn out from 13 hours of hard labor yesterday and today aboard an oil rig dettached with oil, gas and jets of water from a fire-fighting ship.
Hearing that the tired crew might suffer an injury or jeopardize the complex job of capping the well on [WORD ILLEGIBLE] platform in the Ekofisk field, Hansen ordered them off early this afternoon.
The team, now grown to 11 men since a gangplank was fixed from their service barge to the rig, must perform their arduous labor encased in rubber suits and oxygen masks. They were at it today from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Their work is almost done. The "blind rams" or steel pistons that will be driven together to seal the well are in place. "Kill lines" - pipes that will pur mud down the well to lower the oil pressure - have been hooked up to the anchored barge.
Experts here said that the team could start pumping mud and drive home the rams now. However the disaster plan calls for putting in a second line of defense first. This means attaching three more pieces of heavy equipment, including a valve to the top of the rams.
If the erratic weather here permits, that task should be finished Thursday, according to specialists.
By then, the gusher will have spoutted more than 140,000 barrels of oil into the North Sea since the well blew out late Friday night.
Today, however, Norwegian government aides estimated that only 70,000 barrels are actually in the oil slick, now grown to an area of more than 300 square miles. The rest of the oil has either evaporated or sunk in gooey blobs to the bottom.
The slick has begun drifting slowly south, officials said, but it is still 150 miles from the Norwegian coast. So there is little fear, at least in official circles, that much will pollute any shoreline.
No dead birds or fish have been sighted in the sea. There is grave danger, however, that fish eggs and larvae, near the surface, will be killed.
Fresh efforts were made today to scoop up the mess with skimming ships. They failed. A spokesman for Phillips Petroleum, the Bartlesville, Oklua company that owns 37 per cent of the Ekofisk field and runs it, boasted that his firm had amassed specialized ships with a capacity to scoop up 50,000 barrels a day. A government official, however, explained that the Phillips flotilla was useless because the waves today were nine feet high.
By next fall, Phillips and the other oil giants in the Norwegian portion of the North Sea will be required to have enough skimming vessels to scrape off 56,000 barrels a day. This new Norwegian law, however, is not in force now.
The local Phillips lawyer, Paul Mitsen, director of Government Affairs and Contract Surveillance, lamely explained, "just at this moment we did not have that equipment."
In Stavanger, the Houston of the north, little blame is attached to either Phillips or the government for the blow-out.
It is thought to have been caused by a tool, a measuring instrument that got stuck at the bottom of the well. But there is criticism at the failure of the government to insist on and the companies to have ready the special ships and other tools needed to combat a disaster and clean up the mess it makes.