The Day the Sky Turned Black

Pipestone Flyer

    On a crisp evening a little after midnight on March 8th, 1948 derrick man Hugh Leiper and rigger Cliff Covey were working on the Atlantic Rig #3 when the well “burped”. They had been working at the base of the rig attempting to thaw out a frozen hose, but immediately knew that the burp was bad news and began running as fast as they could looking for shelter.

    Behind them they heard a terrible sound as a huge bushing came roaring out of the sky landing just feet in front of them. That would just be the start of one of the worse Alberta oil spills in the history of such disasters.

    Frank McMahon and the Atlantic Oil Company had acquired the Atlantic #3 well rights. Today Calgary’s McMahon Stadium is named after him and his brother.  

    The company managers had overruled the rig manager when they told him the well would not be using drilling mud. It would be a “dry” hole.

    Sixty-two years later the same decision, to not use drilling mud, was made in 2010 by BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico with the same disastrous results.

    As Hugh and Cliff dove for cover behind a stockpile of drilling mud the roar was deafening with rocks and shale being spit out by the well leveling the rig’s siding and pump house.  Oil began to be spewed out up to 50 meters into the air landing on farm buildings as far away as 13 kilometers.

    The well would spew out 10,000 to 15,000 barrels of oil daily for the next six months! The oil spill that resulted is estimated to have been 5 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Over 1.2 million barrels of oil would pour out of the well during this time. Luckily dikes contained most of the spilled oil and with the use of a pipeline to Leduc most of the oil was shipped to refineries by rail. However, enough oil escaped into the North Saskatchewan River, resulting in the contamination of Edmonton’s drinking water supply.

    An outhouse located on the site almost resulted in a major disaster when one of the workers decided to extinguish his cigarette not realizing the toilet had filled with gas and oil fumes. Whoosh! It would take the entire crew using wet sacks to prevent the fire from getting into a pit containing thousands of barrels of oil from igniting. It became a life or death fight, which they won. 

      Initially they attempted to plug the well by using various substances including tons of sawdust and chicken feathers without success. The well would run wild for six months then on September 6th, 1948 a spark from an unknown source set off the well with flames climbing over 100 feet into the air and the sky turned black. The smoke could be seen up to 160 kilometers away and became a feature story on Movietone’s News in theatres all over North America. At the time it was noticed that the skies over Alberta were darker than usual and the weather was cooler than normal. 

    Two of the most famous well control specialist of the day Myron Kinley and Red Adair were brought in to attempt to control the fire. After several failed attempts of quelling the fire, two relief wells were completed in November, which allowed the company to pour millions of gallons of river water down the two relief wells which extinguished the fire and allowed the well to be capped.

    Today one can still see the scars left from Atlantic #3’s disaster. The 23.1 hectares of land located two kilometres southeast of Devon was seeded to grass and has been studied for the past sixty plus years. Bald patches can still be seen even today.

    The disaster would result in improved provincial regulations and the development of both safety technology and training in well-control techniques.

    Surprising Movietone’s News coverage of this disaster resulted in catching the interest of the world market in Alberta’s oil resources resulting in investments to finance Alberta’s expanding oil industry.

    For the citizens of Leduc and area they were just happy to see the blue Alberta skies replace the black skies that they had been watching for months.