The Hewett A survivor who captured Great Yarmouth offshore drama on camera

One of the casualties being carried on a stretcher.

One of the casualties being carried on a stretcher. - Credit: Archant Library

Half a century after the unforgettable North Sea drama involving a blow-out on a gas rig and the capsize of a rescue ship, recalled here recently, I have had the pleasure of talking to one of the final five survivors to be evacuated from the stricken Hewett A.

Yarah Saari today

Yarah Saari today - Credit: Archant

Three men were killed off Norfolk on that fateful November day in 1968.

Rig personnel and crewmen from the stand-by vessel Hector Gannet, which unfortunately struck a rig leg and turned turtle during the rescue crisis, were either airlifted to safety by helicopter or picked up by the Lowestoft trawler Boston Hornet, both responding to the SOS.

Another quick response came from across the Atlantic. Internationally-renowned oil and gas industry trouble-shooter “Red” Adair jetted into Norfolk from his Texas home.

The still photographs capturing the emergency illustrated my November column, and I now know they were taken by Hewett A roughneck Yarah Saadi who recalled that day for me. They were probably the only live pictorial record of that fatal drama.

The Forty One Motel in Southtown Road in Great Yarmouth where Yarah Saadi and his rescued colleagues

The Forty One Motel in Southtown Road in Great Yarmouth where Yarah Saadi and his rescued colleagues stayed after being flown back to shore from the Hewett A rig. It was demolished in 1982. - Credit: Archant

Nowadays, it would be comparatively simple because most people own a mobile telephone capable of recording and sending high definition still and motion pictures with sound. That was not the case 50 years ago when we had to pre-load film into our cameras.

Although survivors and others involved were shepherded away from waiting newsmen in Yarmouth, one offshore worker did pass this spool of film at random to us.

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That must have been Mr Saadi, an Arab Iranian who is now a grandfather living in Caister.

“I had my camera in my bag as we waited to be rescued from the rig,” explains the 77-year-old. “I was the last man to be air-lifted into the Bristow’s helicopter which flew us back to the airfield on Caister Road in Yarmouth.

“There were five of us left on the rig - the driller, assistant driller, crane driver, tool-pusher and me. We were not in danger because all the machinery had been turned off quickly.

“Burning gas was still belching out, but well clear of us. The weather caused no problems - the day was calm and sunny.”

Their wait was not without incident, however. “We saw four very young chaps from the kitchen hanging from a rope ladder as they tried to get down to the Hector Gannet, the stand-by boat, so we dragged them back on to the platform again or they could have been frozen to death.”

Safely back on shore, Yarah and his colleagues were kept away from waiting newsmen, but he recalls: “A reporter asked if anyone had any pictures and I replied that yes, I had.

“He asked if he could have my film so I gave it to him. He said, ‘We’ll interview you later’ but they never did.”

I am confident that was neither bad manners nor breaking a promise, but the situation back in Yarmouth was fairly chaotic, particularly as we journalists were being prevented by company staff from speaking to their survivors and vice-versa.

If I recall correctly, Yarah’s vivid photographs were circulated to newspapers and other media around the world, and could have earned him a tidy sum of money.

He adds: “The next day Red Adair arrived in Yarmouth and said he would turn off the burning escaping gas, which he did.

“At first when we came off the rig we stayed at the Star Hotel where Red Adair stayed during his short time in Yarmouth, but later us men from the rig were moved to the Forty One Motel on Southtown Road before we went back to sea.”

After many years in the oil and natural gas industry in his native Middle East and also in Europe and the Far East, Mr Saadi retired and turned to the less stressful occupation of running a holiday guest house and driving a taxi hereabouts.

• In a December column about a tiled mural depicting the herring fishery in a pedestrian underpass linking Gorleston’s Bridge and Lowestoft Roads, I wondered who had designed the decoration.

From Ann Dunning, of Bells Road, came the answer: “The murals were the result of a design technology project by pupils of Herman Middle School (in Gorleston) about 25 years ago.”