Oil Rig Sinks Off Russian Coast; Dozens Feared Dead

An oil drilling rig that was being towed in a storm sank Sunday off the coast of Sakhalin Island with 67 people onboard, most of whom are still missing.

Rescuers found 14 survivors, four bodies and two life rafts floating empty in the frigid Pacific Ocean. The rig was not operating when it listed in high waves and sank.

The two ships that had been towing the rig, an icebreaker and a tugboat, found the 14 survivors, according to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations.

Later, reports by the Interfax news agency said rescuers pulled four bodies from the sea, and found the two empty life rafts, leaving 49 people unaccounted for by Sunday evening.

Officials said search teams would work into the night, despite high seas, and that the crew had access to survival equipment, including life vests. The Ministry of Transport said the rig sank quickly, within about 20 minutes, at about 2 a.m.

Water flowed into the structure, the ministry said, after pipes were damaged by the tow lines.

''The rig's water discharge systems were operating at their maximum capacity,'' but that did not help, Interfax reported, quoting an unidentified Ministry of Transport official.

The accident appears to have put the lives of more workers in danger than the disaster at BP's Macondo drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11. The well blowout caused a spill that spewed oil into the gulf for months.

Though the Russian rig, called Kolskoye, was not drilling when it sank, the accident was a setback for Russia's ambitions to expand offshore drilling to replace declining output on land, and maintain exports that are vital to the country's economy.

As the United States has taken a go-slow approach to drilling in icy, northern waters off the coast of Alaska, the Russians have pushed ahead with plans to drill in their sector of the Arctic Ocean and other storm-prone and ice-clogged areas, where rescue and cleanup work is considerably more complex.

The Russian national oil company, Rosneft, created a venture this year with Exxon Mobil to explore for oil in the Kara Sea, an inlet off the Arctic Ocean. Under the deal, Exxon and Rosneft agreed to finance a research institute in St. Petersburg to study maritime safety for the oil industry in icy seas.

The Sea of Okhotsk, which covers a shelf rich in petroleum where Exxon Mobil and Shell have already have developed offshore fields, is a part of the Pacific Ocean bordered by the Kuril Island chain and the eastern coast of Siberia, and is partially covered by ice floes in the winter.

Copyright 2011 International Herald Tribune
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