The Alexander L. Kielland disaster and its aftermath

Norwegian Petroleum Museum

National Archives of Norway

National Archives of Norway

Norwegian Petroleum Museum

Abstract

The Alexander L. Kielland disaster is the largest industrial accident in Norway to date, and its aftermath has been significant for survivors, next-of-kin and the industry itself. After years of controversy and questioning surrounding the incident, funding was granted for an ongoing documentation project led by the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The project’s mandate was to help ensure that relatives, survivors, and others affected by the accident feel seen, heard and taken seriously - and that, as much as possible, they can find answers to their questions. This paper presents key documentation compiled by the Petroleum Museum, the National Archives of Norway and the University of Stavanger, as well as its significance for researchers, survivors of the accident, and their relatives.

Article

On March 27th, 1980, the Alexander L. Kielland rig capsized while stationed close to the Edda platform on the Ekofisk oil field, 300 kilometres southwest of Stavanger, Norway. 123 men lost their lives; 89 survived. This devastating accident remains the largest industrial disaster in Norway’s history, leaving an enduring impact on the survivors, their next-of-kin, and the oil industry itself. In 1981, an official Norwegian inquiry concluded that a faulty weld was the primary cause of the accident. Following the event, numerous regulatory changes were implemented to prevent future incidents from occurring on the Norwegian Continental Shelf.

In the decades following the disaster, controversy arose regarding the treatment of survivors and relatives, as well as the reliability of the initial inquiry. The Kielland Network, an organization of survivors and relatives, played a key role in raising these concerns. Renewed interest from the media and researchers at the University of Stavanger brought further attention to the matter. This eventually led the Norwegian Parliament to initiate an investigation by the National Audit Office in 2020. The results of the audit were released in 2021 and concluded that there was no basis for a new inquiry. However, although the authorities had generally done a thorough job clarifying the causes of the accident, the audit found that the original inquiry had certain weaknesses that may have contributed to eroding trust in its conclusions. Furthermore, the issue of liability surrounding the accident was never thoroughly examined, and follow-up with those impacted was inadequate.1

The audit revealed that 88 percent of the bereaved reported a lack of crucial details at the time of the disaster. Some were not directly notified about their relatives’ deaths, and instead learned about it through the media. Additionally, there were no established procedures at this time for critical psychosocial support for those impacted by the incident. Despite medical recommendations for immediate assistance and ongoing care for the bereaved, the Ministry of Social Affairs did not prioritize the allocation of resources to meet these needs. Immediately following the disaster, survivors and bereaved families were presented with a compensation offer from the petroleum companies Phillips Petroleum and Stavanger Drilling. Labour unions encouraged their members to accept the deal, which they considered adequate2. Those who did not participate in this agreement had to go to court.

Figure 1: Sketch of the accident sequence. The accident occurred when one of the rig’s fi ve legs was torn off , causing the rig to tilt at approximately 35 degrees. Within about 20 minutes, the rig capsized. Illustration: Elisabeth M. Tungland
Figure 1: Sketch of the accident sequence. The accident occurred when one of the rig’s five legs was torn off, causing
the rig to tilt at approximately 35 degrees. Within about 20 minutes, the rig capsized. Illustration: Elisabeth M. Tungland

Bereaved who were children in 1980 are now between 40 to 60 years old. Some recount a childhood overshadowed by the loss of a father, the primary provider in the family, leading to a modest upbringing. However, what the majority struggle with today is the lack of answers to lasting questions about their relatives’ fates and the events that took place. Although no new inquiry was initiated by the Norwegian Parliament, funds were granted to support the ongoing search for answers. The Norwegian Petroleum Museum received funding for the three-year “Kielland documentation project,” from 2022-2025. Additionally, the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS) was granted separate funds to study the effects of the accident and its aftermath. The documentation project and NKVTS have collaborated to organize meetings for survivors and bereaved individuals. While the National Centre focuses on investigating the long-term effects of the disaster on well-being and health, the documentation project provides relatives with information and support to help them manage trauma and navigate their path forward in life. The documentation project’s mandate is as follows:

To collect documentation, obtain and make available knowledge about the Alexander L. Kielland disaster, which can shed light on the matter and serve as a basis for research projects, articles, exhibitions, books, cultural activities, and more.

To contribute to ensuring that the relatives, survivors, and other individuals affected by the Alexander L. Kielland disaster feel acknowledged, heard, and taken seriously – and that they receive answers to their questions to the extent possible3

The documentation project was undertaken by the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in close collaboration with the Kielland Network. Following the start of the project in 2022, the University of Stavanger and National Archives of Norway also became important contributors. In our paper, we aim to present documentation in available archives relating to the Kielland disaster, their contents, and what can and cannot be found in them. In addition, we present some of the work done utilizing these archives – in research, and in making them accessible to the general public. The documentation project is now entering its final year, and its main deliveries are and will continue to be published at kielland.industriminne.no.

Figure 2: Alexander L. Kielland (right) before the disaster. The rig was contracted by Stavanger-based company A. Gowart-Olsen & Co in 1973. It was a semi-submersible Pentagon drilling rig with five legs, specifically designed for demanding weather conditions. The rig was built at the CFEM shipyard in France and completed in June 1976. Due to a lack of drilling assignments, it was converted into an accommodation rig and was solely used for lodging throughout its lifespan. Photo: ConocoPhillips / Norwegian Petroleum Museum (NOMF-02663.652)
Figure 2: Alexander L. Kielland (right) before the disaster. The rig was contracted by Stavanger-based company A.
Gowart-Olsen & Co in 1973. It was a semi-submersible Pentagon drilling rig with five legs, specifically designed for
demanding weather conditions. The rig was built at the CFEM shipyard in France and completed in June 1976. Due
to a lack of drilling assignments, it was converted into an accommodation rig and was solely used for lodging
throughout its lifespan. Photo: ConocoPhillips / Norwegian Petroleum Museum (NOMF-02663.652)

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Understanding the Kielland archives

Archives are an important source of answers to many of the questions surrounding the disaster. The National Archives of Norway store and manage archival collections relating to the incident, including those of the initial inquiry, operator, rig owner, and police authorities, as well as many others. There is no singular entity that can be called “the Kielland archive.” Rather, the Kielland archives may refer to a collection of archives connected to the disaster, originating from many different records creators. The National Archives has identified between 20 to 30 different records creators connected to the incident, each of which played a unique role before, during or after the accident. Altogether these collections comprise several hundred thousand documents.

The aftermath of the Kielland disaster produced mass quantities of records, as many different public entities and private parties were involved. The Norwegian National Archives has public records from a variety of government agencies and offices. In Norway, these are often referred to as public archives or public records. The public records contain documentation from all levels of government and local authorities in Norway, including the prime minister’s office, several ministries and ministry offices, the official commission of inquiry, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, the police, and the judicial system. The National Archives also has records from a variety of private parties involved in the accident and its aftermath. These archives include companies operating on the Ekofisk oil and gas field, trade unions, the Kielland Foundation, and personal documents of then Prime Minister, Kåre Willoch. These archives are referred to as private archives or private records.

Of the available records connected to the disaster, the public records contain the largest quantity of documentation from the disaster. The number of different records creators does, however, create a challenge for researchers trying to piece together what happened. Locating these archives can also sometimes be an obstacle. In Norway, public records creators are required to transfer their archives to the National Archives after a period of approximately 25 years. Yet this only applies to archives that are no longer actively in use by the records creator. If the archives are still actively in use, they will not be transferred to the National Archives before their use has ended. An additional challenge in obtaining complete documentation is that private archives are not subject to the same regulations as public archives. Private companies and organizations in Norway have no obligation to hand over their archives to the National Archives. Rather, transferring private archives to the National Archives is done voluntarily. To preserve private archives, the National Archives must contact records creators and ask if they are interested in transferring their archives. This can either happen when the records creator is still active, or after the records creator has stopped their activities. If the records creator wishes to transfer their archives, they then sign a contract with the National Archives regulating access to the records, often requiring approval by the records creator before granting access.

The documentation project aims to make as much material as possible publicly available. At present, the available Kielland archives comprise approximately 200,000 pages. In part through the project’s efforts, the available material has been digitized and made searchable in the Digital Archives4, the National Archives of Norway’s digital publishing platform. This is a huge step in improving accessibility for all interested parties, whether researchers, journalists, survivors, or relatives. These archives do, however, contain large amounts of sensitive, personal data related to the deceased, survivors, and relatives. This poses a series of challenges for accessibility, both in terms of ethical issues and GDPR regulations. Some of the bereaved would like as much information as possible about their deceased relatives to be publicly available. Other relatives, however, may want the opposite. People also have the right to be forgotten and not have their information disclosed. These opposing views on accessibility of the archives makes publishing records a complex matter. Most of the material is available to the public, but records containing personal information are restricted to those who have been granted access. This includes researchers with relevant projects, as well as survivors and relatives who request access to records containing information about themselves or close relatives. This is regulated in Norwegian law.