December 11, 2023

By Hellen Wieffering and Grace Ekpu | Related Press

OKITIPUPA, Nigeria — It was the lifeless of night time when the ship caught hearth, Patrick Aganyebi remembers, however the flames made it appear as vibrant as day.

The explosion that night time woke him and knocked him to the ground. He tucked his telephone and his ID card in his pockets, strapped on a life jacket and made his approach to the higher deck. Because the flames barreled towards him, he ready to leap practically 100 toes (30 meters) into the ocean.

5 employees have been killed and two others presumed lifeless within the blast on the Trinity Spirit, a rusting transformed oil tanker anchored 15 miles (24 km) off the coast of Nigeria that pulled crude oil from the ocean flooring. It was by the grace of God, Aganyebi mentioned, that he and two fellow crewmen escaped, rescued by a pair of fishermen because the burning vessel sank together with 40,000 barrels of oil.

The Trinity Spirit’s explosion in February of final yr stands among the many deadliest tragedies on an oil ship or platform in recent times. The Related Press’ assessment of courtroom paperwork, ship databases, and interviews with crew members reveals that the 46-year-old ship was in a state of near-total disrepair, and the methods meant to make sure its protected and lawful operation — annual inspections, a flag registry, insurance coverage — had step by step fallen away.

The Trinity Spirit suits a sample of previous tankers put to work storing and extracting oil even whereas getting ready to mechanical breakdowns. No less than eight have been shut down after a hearth, a significant security hazard, or the demise of a employee within the final decade, in keeping with an AP assessment. Greater than 30 are older than the Trinity Spirit and nonetheless storing oil all over the world.

Jan-Erik Vinnem, who has spent his profession learning the dangers of offshore oil manufacturing, mentioned he’s typically shocked when he sees footage of oil ships in Africa.”I name them ‘floating bombs,’” he mentioned.

This story was supported by funding from the Walton Household Basis. The AP is solely accountable for all content material.


The Trinity Spirit was a part of a category of vessels that extracts oil offshore and shops it at sea. They’re referred to as floating manufacturing storage and offloading items — FPSOs — or as FSOs, floating storage and offloading items, when used just for storage. For the reason that Seventies, they’ve grow to be more and more common for growing oil in deep waters and in locations the place no pipelines exist. Based on the environmental group SkyTruth, there are some 240 in operation at the moment.

FPSOs are in contrast to most ships for one key cause: They keep in place. As soon as connected to the ocean flooring, they’ll linger on the similar oil subject for years and even many years. They might be surveyed by in-country regulators or employed inspectors, however they function outdoors the traditional move of transport visitors and the added security and authorized inspections that happen in port.

“If a vessel is sitting in a rustic’s home waters and isn’t going round buying and selling … you then’re not going to have that very same stage of oversight,” mentioned Meghan Mathieson, technique director on the Canadian-based Clear Seas Centre for Accountable Marine Transport.

Greater than half the present fleet of FPSOs are recycled oil tankers, in keeping with Oslo-based Rystad Vitality, which retains knowledge on the ships. Senior analyst Edvard Christoffersen mentioned that with out a main restore, most oil ships have hulls constructed to final about 25 years. However some FPSOs are used far longer, typically to harmful impact.

In the identical month that the Trinity Spirit caught hearth, inspectors discovered issues with an getting old FPSO moored off the coast of Malaysia. The Bunga Kertas was constructed as an oil tanker within the Eighties, and press protection of its conversion to an FPSO in 2004 mentioned the vessel had an meant service lifetime of 10 extra years.

Nevertheless it was 18 years later when a security situation on the Bunga Kertas led to a pause in operations. The ship’s hull had ” integrity points,” in keeping with stakeholder Jadestone Vitality. 4 months later a diver was killed whereas repairing the harm. Petronas, the operator on the time, didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Till this fall, one other getting old ship floating off the coast of Yemen appeared dangerously near spilling a large quantity of oil. The FSO Safer was inbuilt the identical yr because the Trinity Spirit, and have become a floating hazard over years of neglect amid the nation’s civil struggle. Seawater had leaked into the ship’s engine room by 2020.

“It may break up at any time – or explode,” the United Nations mentioned in an announcement this spring.

The ship held greater than one million barrels of oil — risking a spill that would have decimated fisheries within the Purple Sea, threatened desalination crops and washed oil on the shores of nations across the Horn of Africa, in keeping with the U.N. After years of alarm and negotiations, the oil was transferred onto one other tanker this August, however the rusting Safer stays off Yemen’s coast, awaiting funds to be scrapped.

Age isn’t the one measure of a ship’s well being: Local weather, storms and wave patterns can add stress to ship elements or enhance the tempo of corrosion, simply as cautious upkeep can lengthen a ship’s life.

However the fleet’s rising age is well-known within the trade. The common hull age of FPSOs has elevated from 22 to just about 28 years since 2010, in keeping with Rystad Vitality. The American Bureau of Transport — one among a number of corporations referred to as classification societies that certify vessels’ security — launched a working group in 2021 to handle the challenges of older FPSOs, noting that 55 ships have been approaching the top of their meant lives.

“Quite a lot of these items are foreseeable,” mentioned Ian Ralby, a maritime safety knowledgeable who helped sound the alarm concerning the Safer.

“If they don’t seem to be properly maintained and never watched rigorously,” Ralby mentioned, “they’ll sink, they’ll spill, and so they can, because the Trinity Spirit confirmed, blow up.”


There was little to no public clarification of what led to the Trinity Spirit’s explosion, although a number of Nigerian businesses had accountability for overseeing the ship. The Trinity Spirit had been on the identical oil subject for greater than 20 years. Based on Aganyebi, after the ship arrived in Nigeria, it was by no means delivered to shore for main upgrades or repairs.

Warning indicators started years earlier than it caught hearth. In 2015, the American Bureau of Transport canceled its classification and ceased inspections of the ship. There’s no report the Trinity Spirit had insurance coverage after that time, in keeping with Lloyd’s Checklist Intelligence. Within the subsequent a number of years, the ship misplaced its privilege to fly the flag of Liberia, changing into a stateless vessel.

By 2019, Nigeria’s petroleum regulator had revoked the Trinity Spirit’s license to pump oil. Nigeria’s head of maritime security, quoted in native press protection, mentioned his company had directed the ship to cease working 5 years earlier than the blast. But the Trinity Spirit was by no means pressured to depart.

Up until the second of the explosion, there was oil on board. As not too long ago as 2021, in keeping with satellite tv for pc imagery and ship transponder knowledge, oil was loaded onto a tanker that later docked at a Shell refinery within the Netherlands.

Adeyemi Adeyiga, a spokesperson for Nigeria’s Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Fee, which regulates the nation’s oil assets, mentioned the sale was authorized as a result of the oil was produced earlier than the license was revoked. And a spokesperson for Shell mentioned the corporate conducts sturdy evaluations of its provide chain and complies with all legal guidelines and laws.

Although the federal authorities investigated the Trinity Spirit’s explosion, greater than a yr later no findings have been launched. For months, it appeared the one scrutiny would fall on the surviving males.

Not lengthy after their escape, and nonetheless within the throes of restoration, Aganyebi and a fellow crewman have been arrested on accusations of “Homicide, Arson, and Malicious Harm,” in keeping with their charging paperwork. Police have been appearing on a criticism from Shebah Exploration and Manufacturing Firm Restricted — the Trinity Spirit’s longtime operator.

An legal professional in Lagos took on the case professional bono.

“They dedicated no offense, they did nothing mistaken. They have been staffers of the corporate,” Benson Enikuomehin mentioned. In an interview, he accused Shebah of drumming up felony expenses to distract from the corporate’s missteps. Something that occurred on the Trinity Spirit needs to be thought-about unlawful after the license to the oil subject was revoked, he mentioned.

Yinka Agidee, an legal professional specializing in Nigeria’s oil and gasoline sector who was not concerned within the case, mentioned the Trinity Spirit represented an “accident ready to occur,” and confirmed that native authorities did not implement their very own orders.

“I’m unsure if it’s a query of individuals closing their eyes or intentionally not doing what they’re speculated to have finished,” she mentioned. “However that has resulted in an accident and there was a lack of life. So we’d like some clarification.”

Interviews and an exploration of paperwork present an absence of readability about who was accountable for the Trinity Spirit within the last years of its decline. Although Shebah employed Aganyebi and the remainder of the Trinity Spirit’s crew, CEO Ikemefuna Okafor mentioned in an e-mail to the AP that the corporate wasn’t accountable for the ship’s neglect. The corporate reported the surviving crew to police, he mentioned, as a result of it had proof of unlawful storage of oil on the ship.

Based on Okafor, liquidators seized possession of the Trinity Spirit in 2018 because of Shebah’s outsized debt. But in a deposition given one yr earlier than the explosion, the corporate’s former president, Ambrosie Orjiako, described how Shebah continued to run operations.

Sustaining gasoline purchases, meals provides, and “skeletal manpower” wasn’t straightforward, Orijako mentioned, as a result of “there’s no income coming in.” However he managed to fund the minimal operations with household assets, he mentioned, as a result of the FPSO “can be harmful to desert.”

Adeyiga, the spokesperson for Nigeria’s Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Fee, mentioned it was nonetheless finalizing its investigation into the ship’s explosion and would proceed working to forestall related tragedies from taking place.

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Security Company didn’t reply to repeated requests for remark, however issued discover in December that each one FPSOs and FSOs in Nigeria’s waters will need to have a flag, be licensed by a classification society, and preserve official plans for ship upkeep and emergency response.


The deck of the Trinity Spirit was an expanse of rust. Orange rust coated the ground, crept over pipes and trailed from crevices within the partitions, in keeping with cellphone images taken 4 months earlier than the explosion. Tools failures plagued the ship’s inside: The engine room flooded twice, Aganyebi mentioned, and the primary generator plant was broken and by no means repaired.

Shebah had began working operations on the ship in 2004, taking up from Houston-based ConocoPhillips. However the web site’s wells had handed peak oil manufacturing a number of years earlier, in keeping with the vitality analysis agency Wooden Mackenzie. Inside just a few years Shebah’s enterprise confirmed indicators of economic stress.

Oil and gasoline operators are inclined to function on the sting of economic wealth or monetary spoil, mentioned David Hammond, founding father of the nonprofit Human Rights at Sea.

“These items go from increase to bust,” he mentioned. “The employees are the final folks to be sorted.”

Aganyebi labored within the engine room of the Trinity Spirit. Inside a yr of becoming a member of the crew in 2014, he mentioned, Shebah stopped reliably paying his wages. Lawrence Yorgolo, who operated the crane on the ship, and Pius Orofin, a deck operator — the one different survivors of final yr’s hearth — alleged the identical in interviews with the AP. The lads mentioned they stayed on board the ship as a result of they’d few different choices and hoped they might sometime be paid.

The workers despatched repeated letters asking for the cash they have been owed, the lads instructed AP. One in all their final makes an attempt was dated July 2019, with a topic line of “SAVE OUR SOUL (SOS).” They wrote they’d labored 15 months with out wage and endured, with “pains and hardship,” the “harsh situation and occupational hazards” of life on board the Trinity Spirit.

Shebah by that point owed thousands and thousands of {dollars}. A trio of banks had sued the corporate over its alleged failure to make funds on a $150 million mortgage, and in 2016 a choose dominated that Shebah should repay practically the complete quantity. A government-run entity, the Asset Administration Company of Nigeria, moved to take over the corporate and the belongings of its president. The ship’s staffing dwindled from practically 40 folks to 10.

For many who remained, there have been instances on the ship when there was nothing to eat, the survivors instructed AP. Yorgolo recalled how the crew went hungry one yr on Christmas. On a separate event — the worst of them, he mentioned — the engine room flooded and the workers labored for 3 days with out meals. The radio operator despatched a message pleading with oil operators close by to come back to their help.

“Our administration was livid,” Yorgolo mentioned.

When the radio operator subsequent went to shore, in keeping with Aganyebi, Yorgolo and Orofin, Shebah didn’t enable him again on the ship. He was the designated particular person to fireplace a flare or name for assist in an emergency. Had the radio operator been on board the night time of the explosion, Aganyebi mentioned, “perhaps these those who have died — they wouldn’t have died.”

The AP’s makes an attempt to achieve the previous radio operator have been unsuccessful.

When it broke in two and commenced to sink, the Trinity Spirit had not less than 40,000 barrels of oil on board, in keeping with Nigeria’s environmental division, which responded to look at the spill. It was succesful, like most FPSOs, of storing greater than one million barrels.

The company mentioned oil wasn’t leaking from the submerged tanks nor had it washed up on shore, however letters nonetheless arrived from neighborhood members in close by Ondo and Delta states complaining concerning the spill. Oil sheens have been seen fanning out from the vessel in satellite tv for pc imagery for days.

5 our bodies have been recovered, and two have been by no means discovered.


Among the many greater than 30 ships recognized by the AP as older than the Trinity Spirit is the Al-Zaafarana, floating off the coast of Egypt. At 54 years, it is among the oldest FPSOs nonetheless in service. Shut behind it are FPSOs in Malaysia and Brazil, every not less than half a century previous.

Alongside Nigeria’s coast, about 200 miles (320 km) south of the place the Trinity Spirit caught hearth, the FPSO Mystras remains to be in service at 47 years previous, though trade studies have famous structural points on the ship. The classification society DNV severed ties with the Mystras three years in the past, ending its common inspections. Based on Rystad Vitality, it was initially designed to function solely via 2014.

The Mystras’ proprietor, NNPC Restricted, didn’t reply to AP’s requests for remark.