In this article, Typhoon Billy, a powerful typhoon in August 1991, caused widespread destruction and loss of life across South China Sea. One victim was the derrick barge owned by McDermott Engineering & Construction company and operating offshore oilfield pipe laying operations when Billy struck; this derrick barge capsized with 29 crewmembers on board while its tug survived; one of the worst maritime disasters ever experienced by region and calling into question offshore industry safety practices and preparedness.
The DB29 and its mission
The DB29 was an immense and luxurious vessel measuring 400 feet long by 100 feet wide, equipped with a crane capable of lifting 2,200 tons as well as a helipad – designed specifically to carry out heavy lifting operations and pipe laying operations in deep waters.
The barge had been working at the Yacheng 13-1 gas field, located about 100 kilometers south of Hainan Island in China and developed jointly by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and British Gas. The DB29 laid about 260 kilometers of pipeline to Hong Kong where its gas was to be used for power generation.
The typhoon and the tragedy
Late August 1991 saw the DB29 complete its work at Yacheng 13-1 project and prepare to embark on its next assignment in Indonesia. Towing was provided by McDermott-owned Typhoon tug – which could pull up to 12,000 horsepower – as it transported its barge. A crew of 69 was present aboard both vessels.
On August 28, Typhoon and DB29 left Yacheng 13-1 field and headed south. While aware of a tropical depression forming in the western Pacific, neither aircraft expected it to pose a serious threat; however, within 24 hours this depression intensified into Typhoon Billy named by Joint Typhoon Warning Center; moving westward it reached peak intensity on August 31 with sustained winds up to 185 kilometers per hour with gusts up to 230 kilometers per hour.
Billy left strong winds, high waves and heavy rainfall behind, leaving both vessels exposed to strong winds, waves and rain. Their barge began taking on water and listing to one side; Typhoon tried pumping out excess fluid but only worsened their situation as their towline snapped between vessels drifted further apart while barge continued its voyage towards capsize and sinking with 29 crewmembers aboard; Typhoon sent out distress signals before waiting for assistance to arrive.
The rescue and the aftermath
Weather conditions made rescue operations difficult for both ships, forcing Chinese authorities to dispatch various naval and civilian vessels and aircraft; unfortunately they arrived too late for barge crew. On September 1, however, an aircraft picked up Typhoon with 40 survivors aboard before their bodies were never found.
McDermott and the offshore industry were dealt a tremendous blow by the sinking of DB29, valued at $100 million and insured for $70 million. Families of deceased crew members filed suit alleging negligence and inadequate safety measures on part of McDermott; however, McDermott denied any wrongdoing citing that it was unforeseeable due to Typhoon Fuego as an extraordinary event.
This incident raised further concerns regarding offshore facilities and vessels’ exposure to extreme weather events, especially typhoons, in particular in the South China Sea where these are frequent and unpredictable. Furthermore, this event revealed the need for improved weather forecasting, communication, and emergency response systems in this region.