Deadly Explosion off Nigeria Points to Threat Posed by Aging Oil Ships

The ship had no insurance, no flag and had fallen into a state of disrepair.

This image from video provided by Bolaji John shows the burning Trinity Spirit anchored 15 miles off the coast of Nigeria, which caught fire on Feb. 2, 2022.
This image from video provided by Bolaji John shows the burning Trinity Spirit anchored 15 miles off the coast of Nigeria, which caught fire on Feb. 2, 2022.
Bolaji John via AP

OKITIPUPA, Nigeria (AP) β€” It was the dead of night when the ship caught fire, Patrick Aganyebi remembers, but the flames made it seem as bright as day.

The explosion that night woke him and knocked him to the floor. He tucked his phone and his ID card in his pockets, strapped on a life jacket and made his way to the upper deck. As the flames barreled toward him, he prepared to jump nearly 100 feet (30 meters) into the sea.

Five workers were killed and two others presumed dead in the blast on the Trinity Spirit, a rusting converted oil tanker anchored 15 miles (24 km) off the coast of Nigeria that pulled crude oil from the ocean floor. It was by the grace of God, Aganyebi said, that he and two fellow crewmen escaped, rescued by a pair of fishermen as the burning vessel sank along with 40,000 barrels of oil.

The Trinity Spirit's explosion in February of last year stands among the deadliest tragedies on an oil ship or platform in recent years. The Associated Press' review of court documents, ship databases and interviews with crew members reveals that the 46-year-old ship was in a state of near-total disrepair, and the systems meant to ensure its safe and lawful operation β€” annual inspections, a flag registry, insurance β€” had gradually fallen away.

The Trinity Spirit fits a pattern of old tankers put to work storing and extracting oil even while on the brink of mechanical breakdowns. At least eight have been shut down after a fire, a major safety hazard, or the death of a worker in the last decade, according to an AP review. More than 30 are older than the Trinity Spirit and still storing oil around the world.

Jan-Erik Vinnem, who has spent his career studying the risks of offshore oil production, said he's sometimes shocked when he sees pictures of oil ships in Africa.

"I call them 'floating bombs,'" he said.

AGING HULLS

The Trinity Spirit was part of a class of vessels that extracts oil offshore and stores it at sea. They are known as floating production storage and offloading units β€” FPSOs β€” or as FSOs, floating storage and offloading units, when used only for storage. Since the 1970s, they've become increasingly popular for developing oil in deep waters and in places where no pipelines exist. According to the environmental group SkyTruth, there are some 240 in operation today.

FPSOs are unlike most ships for one key reason: They stay in place. Once attached to the ocean floor, they can linger at the same oil field for years or even decades. They may be surveyed by in-country regulators or hired inspectors, but they operate outside the normal flow of shipping traffic and the added safety and legal inspections that take place in port.

"If a vessel is sitting in a country's domestic waters and is not going around trading … then you're not going to have that same level of oversight," said Meghan Mathieson, strategy director at the Canadian-based Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.

More than half the current fleet of FPSOs are recycled oil tankers, according to Oslo-based Rystad Energy, which keeps data on the ships. Senior analyst Edvard Christoffersen said that without a major repair, most oil ships have hulls built to last about 25 years. But some FPSOs are used far longer, sometimes to dangerous effect.

In the same month that the Trinity Spirit caught fire, inspectors found problems with an aging FPSO moored off the coast of Malaysia. The Bunga Kertas was built as an oil tanker in the 1980s, and press coverage of its conversion to an FPSO in 2004 said the vessel had an intended service life of 10 more years.

But it was 18 years later when a safety issue on the Bunga Kertas led to a pause in operations. The ship's hull had " integrity issues," according to stakeholder Jadestone Energy. Four months later a diver was killed while repairing the damage. Petronas, the operator at the time, did not respond to a request for comment.

Until this fall, another aging ship floating off the coast of Yemen seemed dangerously close to spilling a massive amount of oil. The FSO Safer was built in the same year as the Trinity Spirit, and became a floating hazard over years of neglect amid the country's civil war. Seawater had leaked into the ship's engine room by 2020.

"It could break up at any time – or explode," the United Nations said in a statement this spring.

The ship held more than a million barrels of oil β€” risking a spill that could have decimated fisheries in the Red Sea, threatened desalination plants and washed oil on the shores of countries around the Horn of Africa, according to the U.N. After years of alarm and negotiations, the oil was transferred onto another tanker this August, but the rusting Safer remains off Yemen's coast, awaiting funds to be scrapped.

Age isn't the only measure of a ship's health: Climate, storms and wave patterns can add stress to ship components or increase the pace of corrosion, just as careful maintenance can extend a ship's life.

But the fleet's growing age is well known in the industry. The average hull age of FPSOs has increased from 22 to nearly 28 years since 2010, according to Rystad Energy. The American Bureau of Shipping β€” one of several companies known as classification societies that certify vessels' safety β€” launched a working group in 2021 to address the challenges of older FPSOs, noting that 55 ships were approaching the end of their intended lives.

"A lot of these things are foreseeable," said Ian Ralby, a maritime security expert who helped sound the alarm about the Safer.

"If they are not well maintained and not watched carefully," Ralby said, "they can sink, they can spill, and they can, as the Trinity Spirit showed, blow up."

DANGEROUS TO ABANDON

There has been little to no public explanation of what led to the Trinity Spirit's explosion, though multiple Nigerian agencies had responsibility for overseeing the ship. The Trinity Spirit had been on the same oil field for more than two decades. According to Aganyebi, after the ship arrived in Nigeria, it was never brought to shore for major upgrades or repairs.

Warning signs began years before it caught fire. In 2015, the American Bureau of Shipping canceled its classification and ceased inspections of the ship. There's no record the Trinity Spirit had insurance after that point, according to Lloyd's List Intelligence. In the next several years, the ship lost its privilege to fly the flag of Liberia, becoming a stateless vessel.

By 2019, Nigeria's petroleum regulator had revoked the Trinity Spirit's license to pump oil. Nigeria's head of maritime safety, quoted in local press coverage, said his agency had directed the ship to stop operating five years before the blast. Yet the Trinity Spirit was never forced to leave.

Up till the moment of the explosion, there was oil on board. As recently as 2021, according to satellite imagery and ship transponder data, oil was loaded onto a tanker that later docked at a Shell refinery in the Netherlands.

Adeyemi Adeyiga, a spokesperson for Nigeria's Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, which regulates the country's oil resources, said the sale was legal because the oil was produced before the license was revoked. And a spokesperson for Shell said the company conducts robust reviews of its supply chain and complies with all laws and regulations.

Though the federal government investigated the Trinity Spirit's explosion, more than a year later no findings have been released. For months, it seemed the only scrutiny would fall on the surviving men.

Not long after their escape, and still in the throes of recovery, Aganyebi and a fellow crewman were arrested on accusations of "Murder, Arson, and Malicious Damage," according to their charging documents. Police were acting on a complaint from Shebah Exploration and Production Company Limited β€” the Trinity Spirit's longtime operator.

An attorney in Lagos took on the case pro bono.

"They committed no offense, they did nothing wrong. They were staffers of the company," Benson Enikuomehin said. In an interview, he accused Shebah of drumming up criminal charges to distract from the company's missteps. Anything that took place on the Trinity Spirit should be considered illegal after the license to the oil field was revoked, he said.

Yinka Agidee, an attorney specializing in Nigeria's oil and gas sector who was not involved in the case, said the Trinity Spirit represented an "accident waiting to happen," and showed that local authorities failed to enforce their own orders.

"I'm not sure if it's a question of people closing their eyes or deliberately not doing what they're supposed to have done," she said. "But that has resulted in an accident and there has been a loss of life. So we need some explanation."

Interviews and an exploration of documents provide a lack of clarity about who was responsible for the Trinity Spirit in the final years of its decline. Though Shebah hired Aganyebi and the rest of the Trinity Spirit's crew, CEO Ikemefuna Okafor said in an email to the AP that the company wasn't responsible for the ship's neglect. The company reported the surviving crew to police, he said, because it had evidence of illegal storage of oil on the ship.

According to Okafor, liquidators seized ownership of the Trinity Spirit in 2018 due to Shebah's outsized debt. Yet in a deposition given one year before the explosion, the company's former president, Ambrosie Orjiako, described how Shebah continued to run operations.

Sustaining fuel purchases, food supplies, and "skeletal manpower" wasn't easy, Orijako said, because "there's no revenue coming in." But he managed to fund the minimal operations with family resources, he said, because the FPSO "would be dangerous to abandon."

Adeyiga, the spokesperson for Nigeria's Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, said it was still finalizing its investigation into the ship's explosion and would continue working to prevent similar tragedies from happening.

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but issued notice in December that all FPSOs and FSOs in Nigeria's waters must have a flag, be certified by a classification society, and maintain official plans for ship maintenance and emergency response.

SAVE OUR SOULS

The deck of the Trinity Spirit was an expanse of rust. Orange rust coated the floor, crept over pipes and trailed from crevices in the walls, according to cell phone photos taken four months before the explosion. Equipment failures plagued the ship's interior: The engine room flooded twice, Aganyebi said, and the main generator plant was damaged and never repaired.

Shebah had started running operations on the ship in 2004, taking over from Houston-based ConocoPhillips. But the site's wells had passed peak oil production several years earlier, according to the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. Within a few years Shebah's venture showed signs of financial stress.

Oil and gas operators tend to operate on the edge of financial wealth or financial ruin, said David Hammond, founder of the nonprofit Human Rights at Sea.

"These things go from boom to bust," he said. "The workers are the last people to be looked after."

Aganyebi worked in the engine room of the Trinity Spirit. Within a year of joining the crew in 2014, he said, Shebah stopped reliably paying his wages. Lawrence Yorgolo, who operated the crane on the ship, and Pius Orofin, a deck operator β€” the only other survivors of last year's fire β€” alleged the same in interviews with the AP. The men said they stayed on board the ship because they had few other options and hoped they would someday be paid.

The staff sent repeated letters asking for the money they were owed, the men told AP. One of their last attempts was dated July 2019, with a subject line of "SAVE OUR SOUL (SOS)." They wrote they had worked 15 months without salary and endured, with "pains and hardship," the "harsh condition and occupational hazards" of life on board the Trinity Spirit.

Shebah by that time owed millions of dollars. A trio of banks had sued the company over its alleged failure to make payments on a $150 million loan, and in 2016 a judge ruled that Shebah must repay nearly the full amount. A government-run entity, the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, moved to take over the company and the assets of its president. The ship's staffing dwindled from nearly 40 people to 10.

For those who remained, there were times on the ship when there was nothing to eat, the survivors told AP. Yorgolo recalled how the crew went hungry one year on Christmas. On a separate occasion β€” the worst of them, he said β€” the engine room flooded and the staff worked for three days without food. The radio operator sent a message pleading with oil operators nearby to come to their aid.

"Our management was furious," Yorgolo said.

When the radio operator next went to shore, according to Aganyebi, Yorgolo and Orofin, Shebah didn't allow him back on the ship. He was the designated person to fire a flare or call for help in an emergency. Had the radio operator been on board the night of the explosion, Aganyebi said, "maybe those people that have died β€” they wouldn't have died."

The AP's attempts to reach the former radio operator were unsuccessful.

When it broke in two and began to sink, the Trinity Spirit had at least 40,000 barrels of oil on board, according to Nigeria's environmental department, which responded to examine the spill. It was capable, like most FPSOs, of storing more than a million barrels.

The agency said oil wasn't leaking from the submerged tanks nor had it washed up on shore, but letters still arrived from community members in nearby Ondo and Delta states complaining about the spill. Oil sheens were visible fanning out from the vessel in satellite imagery for days.

Five bodies were recovered, and two were never found.

SINKING SHIP

Among the more than 30 ships identified by the AP as older than the Trinity Spirit is the Al-Zaafarana, floating off the coast of Egypt. At 54 years, it is one of the oldest FPSOs still in service. Close behind it are FPSOs in Malaysia and Brazil, each at least half a century old.

Along Nigeria's coast, about 200 miles (320 km) south of where the Trinity Spirit caught fire, the FPSO Mystras is still in service at 47 years old, although industry reports have noted structural issues on the ship. The classification society DNV severed ties with the Mystras three years ago, ending its regular inspections. According to Rystad Energy, it was originally designed to operate only through 2014.

The Mystras' owner, NNPC Limited, did not respond to AP's requests for comment.

Further inland, the Trinity Spirit's surviving crew members have been left to eke out a living as they wait for the wages they say were never paid. Aganyebi's vision is poor from the glare of the explosion; Orofin's hearing is damaged from the noise. He has a long scar on his leg. Both men spent 19 days in jail.

Yorgolo, who was the only survivor not charged with a crime, fell on his back when he jumped from the burning vessel and was unconscious when fishermen pulled him into their boat. He believes he wasn't named as a suspect only because he spent months in the hospital suffering from an injured spine.

The charges were dropped in October last year after the Ondo State Ministry of Justice reviewed the case. In conversations with AP, the men vehemently denied setting the vessel on fire or illegally storing oil. They blamed the explosion on their employer, Shebah, and the years without maintenance on the ship.

For Aganyebi, it was clear the company had abandoned the Trinity Spirit long ago.

"No medical personnel, no safety officer, no radio man in that gigantic vessel," he said.

Off the coast of Nigeria, the ship is still visible β€” split in two pieces and half submerged. As recently as September, in satellite imagery, oil appeared to be leaking from the site of the wreck. It's unclear when authorities will remove the hazard or salvage the remaining oil, as slowly, the ship sinks further into the sea.

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