A news story concerning the horrifying deaths of four Trinidad scuba divers who were sucked into a pipeline continues to be one of the most widely read on Divernet – almost two years after the event.
Now a detailed report by Trinidad & Tobago’s Commission of Enquiry (CoE) has concluded that state-owned oil company Paria Fuel Trading was culpable of “gross negligence and consequently criminal” in its handling of the fatal incident.
The report suggests that because Paria made “little or no attempt to rescue” the divers, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) should consider bringing a corporate manslaughter charge against it. And it has also recommended the prosecution of two individuals – one of whose son died in the tragedy.
Meanwhile Vanessa Kussie, the widow of diver Rishi Nagassar, has said that the bereaved families, who have been struggling ever since the incident, should be compensated for life based on the men‘s full pay. She has also called for the six-man board of directors of Paria, which has refused to accept liability for the deaths, to be removed.
The fatal incident occurred on 25 February, 2022, when five underwater welders were working in a bell at a depth of 18m at Pointe-a-Pierre in western Trinidad, where the island’s biggest oil refinery is located.
The divers were employed by service company Land & Marine Contracting Services (LMCS), which had been contracted by Paria to carry out routine maintenance on a 90cm-bore undersea oil pipeline that ran about 400m from shore to a berth out at sea.
But when they removed a plug from the pipeline the air inside caused a powerful vacuum effect that sucked the five divers inside the pipe in a line, alive and initially able to breathe inside air-pockets.
Nagassar (48) and colleagues Fyzal Kurban (57), Kazim Ali Jnr (37) and Yusuf Henry (31) all eventually died, after in some cases surviving for days. Only Christopher Boodram, the last into the pipe, got out alive, after working his way back to its entrance and being rescued by relatives of the divers, led by Kurban’s son Michael.
‘Inertia difficult to comprehend’
Boodram told his rescuers that the other divers were still alive, though having sustained various injuries, and awaiting rescue. Michael Kurban said that he had tried to enter the pipe but had been constrained by the length of his umbilical air supply.
He later claimed that he and the other volunteers had then been prevented from trying to effect their own rescue on the grounds that they were contravening health & safety protocols, and that valuable time had therefore been lost.
The CoE report appeared to agree, accusing Paria of preventing a contractor from sending commercial divers to rescue the trapped men, of spending several hours wasting time searching for them in open water, of delays in deploying cameras and failure to consult with the volunteer rescuers on site.
“Paria made little or no attempt to rescue, in that they failed to manage and co-ordinate the resources that were available,” it says. “The opportunity to rescue the men from the pipe was completely wasted by a degree of inertia that is difficult to comprehend.”
The report also found evidence to justify the individual prosecutions not only of Paria terminal operations manager Colin Piper but of LMCS managing director Kazim Ali Snr for several alleged offences under Trinidad & Tobago’s Occupational Safety & Health Act.
However, survivor Boodram and widow Kussie say that they would prefer Ali Snr not to have to face charges, especially because his son Kazim Ali Jr had been among the dead.
“Piper showed no signs of sincerity to the families,” Boodram told Trinidad & Tobago Newsday. “No one from Paria has apologised to the families. In trying to forgive, I would not like him [Ali Snr] to be prosecuted, but the company should hold full responsibility.”
Boodram says that he is still receiving counselling, finding it difficult to sleep and no longer able to work as a diver. “Diving is my passion but, from the incident to now, I cannot bring myself to go to the sea,” he said. “Sometimes I think it might have been easier for me and my family if I had died.”
‘Not one black cent’
Paria originally claimed that it had been monitoring the stricken divers from the surface with its own rescue divers standing by, and had contacted the Coast Guard as soon as the incident occurred.
But the relatives have challenged this version of events, claiming that Paria had not even sent remote cameras into the pipe until some 12 hours after the initial incident, and that rescue divers had been unwilling to enter it until the time-consuming task of pumping out the contents had been completed.
The report, which has now been presented to the House of Representatives by the energy minister and forwarded to the DPP, includes 52 recommendations for further action, along with a reference to compensation for relatives.
“In situations where families have had their loved ones and breadwinners snatched away from them in circumstances such as these, or any tragedy, real consideration needs to be given to assisting the families in the immediate aftermath of the incident to help them with the financial burden that they have been catapulted into,” it states.
“This does not have to involve any admission of liability, merely the recognition that the families of those who have died or been seriously injured may need help.” Though Paria has continued to deny responsibility, lawyers for the families have indicated that they will be seeking compensation for their clients, and, if refused, will bring High Court actions against both Paria and LMCS.
“The families have not gotten one black cent from the government or any sort of compensation from Paria,” relatives’ friend and activist Kevin Lalchan told Newsday, adding that he was gratified by the report’s findings and believed they could set a precedent for future incidents.
A local MP, Rushton Paray, called on Trinidad & Tobago’s prime minister Keith Rowley to remove the Paria Fuel Trading board following what he called the report’s “damning revelations”, which he said exposed “severe lapses in duty and glaring incompetence within the board and senior executive management of Paria”.
If the DPP decides to take action, the Trinidad & Tobago Police Service or another investigative body will be engaged to undertake the criminal prosecution.
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