It was 1987, Paul handed me a toy fire-engine he had bought for his 6-year-old son, Mathew.”I haven’t seen him and my wife for 4 months, but I’m taking a break, I’m meeting them on Sunday at D.F. Malan airport, in Cape Town.” he said with noticeable excitement in his voice.
The break Paul was talking about, was from his work as a “MIG” welder foreman and the project he was working on was the accommodation module of the offshore-Mosgas oil-rig off Mosselbay on the east coast of southern Africa, where a large flammable gas reserve was discovered.
It was South-Africa’s most ambitious project, and the first offshore oil and gas drilling-platform designed and built entirely by South-Africa. The company, Sandock-Austral Ltd., where I worked and where Paul worked as a sub-contractor from Cape Town, was a prestigious shipbuilding company, in Durban, 900 miles away from Mosselbay, the final destination of the module after completion, and after arriving in Mosselbay after its long sea journey. Durban, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, was at that time, the busiest harbor city in South-Africa.
Paul and I had become friends through my association with him and his crew of 4 top class welders in my capacity as our company’s H.R. manager and whose day to day administrative business affairs included the handling of Paul’s team’s administrative matters. Handing back, the shiny, red toy, I remarked to him, saying: “Wow, Paul, I’m so happy for you, finally taking a break. It must have been absolute hell, being 1000 miles away from your family.” “Man, he said, you have no idea, I did not think I could love them any more than I already did, until this time around. I had always worked in and around Cape Town harbor and was able to be home every night.”
Paul left my office and I took out the meal, Daleen, my wife had packed for me. Speaking of appreciating one’s loved ones, I looked into the food container she so lovingly had packed for me.
My favorite green salad with olives, roast chicken and my favorite, a generous wedge of cheddar cheese. Having rinsed my hands, in the basin in the corner of my office, I returned to my desk and the meal. I took a bite of chicken and was about to savor the mouthful when I heard a dull thud, followed by a mild tremor and an absolute moment of complete silence…
The next moment there was an urgent knock on my door, followed by the company Safety-manager Tom Kelly, opening the door; his face was ashen! Before I could ask what was going on, he spoke: “Dear G*d! Andre’ come quick, its the accommodation module. There are bodies and lots of blood everywhere.”
As a war veteran a few years earlier and an ex-police officer, I had seen human carnage in far too many situations I care to remember.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what I was now witnessing. As I looked around me, spots of smoldering material were everywhere. A smell like cordite permeated the air. Paul’s entire crew of four had been wiped out. I looked around for Paul when the safety manager, shook his head. He looked over towards the far side of the blast area and I followed his gaze. It was Paul he was hunched over the escape hatch as if he was about to go inside.
At his feet lay the toy fire engine which I picked up. The back of Paul’s welding suit was completely unmarked but he was completely motionless, as if in shock.
As I neared him, looking at the front of his body, there was no mistaking the dire extent of his wounds which left me in no doubt as to his condition.
Force of habit made me reach for a pulse in his carotid artery…
Our clinic sister was frenziedly dashing around from scorched victim to victim, trying to apply dressings or to resuscitate. “Tanya, listen, my friend, they are gone… I checked… I said. “No Andre’, I must do something, leave me be,” she replied.
I gently squeezed her shoulder. You have done remarkably well, now please help me keep people away from the scene, for the detectives.
South-African law registers all such cases as a Culpable- homicide and forensic staff want the scene to be as uncontaminated as possible.
Within moments I had obtained the relevant eyewitness statements, one from the Safety-officer, Tom Kelly, whose job was to issue a hot-work-gas-free certificate, the Security guard on access control and other staff in the immediate vicinity. The police department arrived and then the medical staff. I informed our company director on site of what had just happened and then assisted wherever I could.
After investigators had questioned witnesses and had collected evidence, the senior detective informed me, that there had in fact been two gas explosions, caused by a spark. When the first explosion happened, Paul had instantly rushed towards the steel tank where his crew was working. Smoke was billowing from the entrance hatch but disregarding his own safety, he jumped in and started pushing his lifeless crew, one by one, through the hatch.
He jumped out for air and dashed back to see if he had missed anyone, at that exact moment the second explosion jerked his upper body half-way through the hatch which was how I found him.
When oxygen in a sealed container, like the new 100,000-liter fuel tank Paul and his crew were building is ignited, the flames will hungrily consume all of the oxygen inside and rapidly reach for the only source of available air, which is directly outside of the hatch.
A few days later at their special memorial service, I had the opportunity to meet Paul’s widow and son, as well as the wives and families of the other crew members and in the confines of my office, I shared those precious memories of the last few moments in Paul’s life and assuring them of his eternal love for them both and how much he was looking forward to seeing them again.
It was then, that I had felt, I should take the red fire engine, from my desk drawer and hand it to Mathew, saying:”Mathew, your dad and I had, in a very short while, become very close friends and he could not wait to give you this fire engine because you loved stories about firemen and women rescuing people and animals so much.
There is nothing more sobering than death and while it is an inevitable path for each of us, I am sure, most of us would prefer to face our final moments, head on, as a hero, saying, as I believe, Paul had done when he dashed into the flames:“death where is thy sting?”