In a blistering critique of bureaucratic bungling, the official Chinese press disclosed today that 72 workers died when a mobile offshore oil rig overturned in the Bohai Gulf last November.
The People's Daily, the Workers' Daily and the New China News Agency, in lengthy accounts of the incident, blamed local officials for failing to follow safety rules and rashly ordering that the rig be moved despite forecasts of high winds.
The press account of an official investigation said the agency responsible for offshore oil drilling did not even bother to translate key operating instructions for the Japanese-made rig until after the Nov. 25 incident.
Foreign oil specialists here, who had earlier unconfirmed reports of the tragedy, have expressed concern about China's ability to handle the complicated equipment being purchased for its crash program to open new oil fields. Oil is the key to Peking's effort to modernize its industry and finance foreign trade, but it has been slow in assimilating the new technology needed to tap potential offshore oil sources.
Foreign observers said they were gratified by the Chinese willingness to publicize the investigation of the incident, after what they official news agency said had been an attempt by the officials responsible to "cover up" and then "obstruct" the people.
The rig, known as the Bohai Number 2, was one of the oldest owned by the Chinese, built in 1969 by Mitsubishi and sold to the Chinese in 1973. It is one of only 16 known to be in operating condition, and thus its loss is thought to have set back the Chinese oil exploration effort.
The Chinese news agency said the capsizing "was the largest such accident ever to occur in China," but said that there had been 1,043 offshore accidents from 1975 to 1979, resulting in 105 deaths and 114 persons seriously injured. It estimated the loss from the Bohai incident, apart from the loss of life, at about $25 million.
The news agency account said: "The platform capsized in a gale while being towed from one drilling site to another drilling site 117 nautical miles away.
"Before departure from the original site, the head of the oil rig cabled the bureau headquarters and suggested that three tugboats be sent to tow the platform to ensure its safety. The headquarters rejected the proposal and sent only one 8,000-horsepower tugboat.
"On the morning the day of departure, there were gale warnings for the area . . . but the headquarters did not order that the towing operation be postponed because of the warnings.
"On the evening of the same day gale-force winds came, heavy waves pounded the platform and submerged it. In the early hours of the next day the platform, which had been designed to withstand a hurricane, capsized. Although an SOS had been issued, it took the first rescue ship seven hours to arrive on the scene. The [offshore oil-drilling bureau] leaders boarded a ship bound for the scene three hours after the accident."
A commentary in the Worker's Daily said the tragedy was the "inevitable result of errors in ideology and practice over a long period by the leadership of the bureau." Attributing their information to unnamed staff members of the bureau, the newspaper said there were "many cases" in which reluctant rig supervisors had been ordered to move rigs in bad weather.
"When accidents happened, the leaders simply made excuses, saying it was due to 'lack of experience,'" the commentary said.
"The leadership of the bureau has never given any attention to safety," the commentary said. "The rig had been imported six years before, yet the direction book for safety calculation of the rig was not translated until after the accident."
Worker's Daily said the bureau's leadership had ignored advice from rig workers and supervisors to shut down operations during difficult winter weather, and in at least one case transferred an underling who had insisted on better safety preparations. The leadership called their own attitude "full of dashing spirit" while labeling anyone who "took a scientific viewpoint" as "afraid of difficulties," the newspaper said.
The commentary said one bureau leader even refused to get off a helicopter so that a worker injured in an earlier rig accident could have more room. The commentary demanded punishment for those responsible for the Bohai incident.
The same newspaper has been push-for harsher penalties for officials connected with a November coal mine explosion in Jilin that took 52 lives. The officials had received jail terms of two to four years, but several workers wrote to say that was not enough.