Offshore natural gas platform sinks off Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — A natural-gas platform sank off Venezuela on Thursday after workers escaped in lifeboats and the last few hurled themselves into the Caribbean Sea. The oil minister said there was no threat to the environment and all 95 workers were safely evacuated.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told state television that workers disconnected a tube leading from the gas fields to the Aban Pearl platform, preventing any damage to the ocean or marine life. He said alarms went off three hours before the sinking, giving the crew time to evacuate.

Many stepped into lifeboats and drifted free, said Abraham Natera, the rig's superintendent. Ramirez said three crew members — including the Indian captain and an American manager from a company working on the rig — stayed behind until the collapse was imminent and then hurled themselves into the water.

"They had to jump from the platform because at the last moment there was no possibility of getting off by boat," Ramirez told reporters.

The navy picked up the evacuees using a frigate and boats after the gas platform sank below the surface at 2:20 a.m. (2:50 a.m. EDT; 0650 GMT), Ramirez said.

President Hugo Chavez announced the sinking on Twitter early Thursday, saying: "To my sorrow, I inform you that the Aban Pearl gas platform sank moments ago. The good news is that 95 workers are safe."

The Singapore-flagged platform, built in 1977, has a capacity of 98 people and is owned by a subsidiary of Indian company Aban Offshore.

"The company is assisting in assessment and in determination of the causes of the incident," Aban said in a statement on its website.

Unlike the disastrous oil spill caused by a rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, the sinking of the gas rig posed no apparent threat to the environment, officials said.

"There's no problem of any sort of any leak from the field into the environment," Ramirez said. The rig was operating in waters about 525 feet (160 meters) deep off eastern Sucre state.

Last week, Ramirez stood atop the platform on live television as its gas flare was lit to inaugurate the project. Chavez praised the project at the time as an important step in Venezuela's efforts to tap its huge natural-gas deposits, saying, "We're making history."

The exploration platform at the Dragon 6 gas field was operated by the state energy company Petroleos de Venezuela SA off the Paria Peninsula of eastern Venezuela, near Trinidad and Tobago.

Venezuela, a major oil exporter and OPEC member, is exploring offshore natural-gas fields that are among the biggest known deposits in the world.

"Before starting operations, this platform was repaired, inspected and certified," Ramirez told state television. He said it was certified as being "in optimal condition."

Specialists will now use robots to inspect the underwater structures that supported the platform to try to determine what went wrong, he said.

Officials have been flying over the area, and many of the evacuated workers were being taken by boat to the town of Carupano on the coast, Ramirez said. Some were flown to the coast by helicopter.

The state oil company is making contacts to obtain a replacement platform within the next two months, and the sinking should not affect Venezuela's overall plans to move ahead with exploration to tap the undersea gas deposits, Ramirez said.

Associated Press Writer Ian James contributed to this report.