Until early last year, a rusting oil ship named the Trinity Spirit floated off the coast of Nigeria, pulling crude oil from the ocean floor.Then, last February, it exploded, collapsing into the ocean along with 40,000 barrels of oil.
Five workers were killed and two others presumed dead, their bodies never found.Three crew members survived.
Oil slicks were visible in satellite imagery for days and were still visible in imagery taken last month.
Patrick Aganyebi was a maintenance operator who still suffers vision problems from the glare of the explosion.
Pius Orofin was a deck operator and he says his hearing was damaged from the noise.
He also has a long scar on his leg.
The explosion 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 — annual inspections, a flag registry, insurance — 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.
“The Trinity Spirit is not an isolated incident. It could happen, will happen again,” said Meghan Mathieson, strategy director at the Canadian-based Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.
“There's a number of these vessels that are being used in that way, and I think more even since COVID affected the supply chain and demand for oil. There was a huge spike in floating storage being used.”
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 — FPSOs — 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.
Many spent the first half of their lives as oil tankers and were later repurposed into stationary ships.
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.
He also said the engine room flooded twice and the main generator plant was damaged and never repaired.
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.
“This vessel definitely was, you know, flouted some of these regulations as a result of which sanctions should have been taken. So if they were not taken, then we would need to know why,” she said.
Nigerian authorities haven’t published a conclusive reason as to why the Trinity Spirit exploded.
Though a company that had operated the ship accused two surviving crew members of illegally storing oil on the ship and setting it on fire, the two men told AP they were sleeping when the explosion happened.
The criminal charges against Aganyebi and Orofin were later dropped and they were released from jail.
The AP found at least eight oil ships that have been shut down after a fire, a major safety hazard, or the death of a worker in the last decade.
That figure includes an FPSO called the Bunga Kertas, floating off the coast of Malaysia, which paused operations in the same month that the Trinity Spirit caught fire because “integrity issues” were discovered in the ship's hull. Soon after, a diver involved in the repair process was killed.
Until this fall, another oil ship, the FSO Safer, had for years risked a catastrophic spill in the Red Sea.
“It could break up at any time – or explode,” the United Nations said in a statement this spring.
The Safer was built in the same year as the Trinity Spirit and fell into disrepair while it was still carrying more than a million barrels of oil.
More than 30 ships are older than the Trinity Spirit and still operating around the world, according to AP's review.
Among them is the Al-Zaafarana, floating off the coast of Egypt, which at 54 years is one of the oldest FPSOs still in service.
Close behind it are oil ships in Malaysia and Brazil, each at least half a century old.
In Nigeria, the FPSO Mystras is still in service at 47-years-old, despite industry reports that the ship was originally built to operate only through 2014.
As a fleet, the ships are getting older.
The average hull age of FPSOs has increased from 22 to nearly 28 years since 2010, according to Rystad Energy, and in 2021, the American Bureau of Shipping said several dozen ships were nearing the end of their intended lives.
It’s unclear when authorities will remove the hazard or salvage the remaining oil from the Trinity Spirit, as slowly, the ship sinks further into the sea.
The three surviving crew members have been left to as they wait for the wages they say were never paid.