by Janet Pinheiro
(Photos: Abdulaziz Al-Moaiweed and Abdullah A. Alshammari/MPD, and Moath Almansour/APOD.)
During the recent attacks on facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, Saudi Aramco heroes displayed unflinching courage ... these are their stories
Uninterruptable telecommunication lines between operations and emergency responders played a crucial role in alleviating the damage and disruption that was intended in recent attacks at company facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. (Photo: Abdulaziz Al Moaiweed/MPD)
Destructive flames rose into the shattered stillness of Eastern Saudi Arabia’s predawn autumn sky last month, maliciously seeking to burn the world’s largest crude oil stabilization facility, Abqaiq Plants.
It was a race against time to save people’s lives and assets from the scorching flames and billowing smoke being insatiably fed by 16 menacing infernos within three of 14 massive processing facilities.
At the same time, Khurais Plants, an oil producing and processing facility 250 kilometers to Abqaiq’s west, was also responding to projectiles that pierced into four of its five oil trains.
Approximately two hours from completing their weekend night shift, around 100 workers were inside the Abqaiq facility when the attack struck columns, spheroids, and pipes, igniting fires taking seven hours to put out.
World’s Largest Oil Supply Disruption
In the early hours of a mid-September morning, Saudi Aramco’s Khurais and Abqaiq facilities were brazenly attacked, damaging components of both facilities.
The audacious attack, which caused the world’s largest ever oil supply disruption, quickly ignited an even bigger blaze of international condemnation — and a remarkable response from the company’s people, partners, suppliers, and fellow oil and gas companies. Also remarkable was the fact that no lives were lost in the attacks.
“The strikes on the company’s facilities temporarily disrupted around half of the company’s daily production, 5% of global oil production, and more than 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day,” said Southern Area Oil Operations vice president Khalid A. Al-Buraik.
“But, we were back producing within 24 hours at Khurais, and 48 hours at Abqaiq,” adds Al-Buraik with immense pride.
For the first time in its 71-year history, Abqaiq Plants shut down.
Front-line operations, intimately familiar with Abqaiq’s pipes, tanks, and columns, quickly realized that what was happening was no ordinary operational incident.
Within minutes, with professional precision, the shift superintendent quietly issued the historic instruction to halt the stream of hydrocarbons from across the Southern Area oil fields to the facility.
Back Producing Within Hours
Production at Khurais resumed less than 24 hours after the attack, and Abqaiq began processing more than 2 million barrels per day within 48 hours.
In addition to the courage, professionalism and innovation of all its people, vice president Al-Buraik attributes Saudi Aramco’s robust and reliable design of its facilities as a key factor behind the company’s resilience to the strikes.
With a heritage dating back to 1933, Saudi Aramco has decades of experience managing the extraction, processing, and transportation of hydrocarbons, and significant investments in building and maintaining its large infrastructure and logistics network.
Saudi Aramco invests wisely in the design of its plants, providing extra layers of protection for safety and operational continuation.
The world-class capabilities of Abqaiq Plants and Khurais are built not only on the technology fronts, but also on the company’s talents.
Although the facilities at Abqaiq Plants are mature, at the same time they are young.
Khurais is young, but with its ultramodern technology, also wise.
“I am really proud of the great efforts from all organizations during this unfortunate experience. They demonstrated high collaboration and sincere ownership that contained the associated attack risks timely as well as bringing both Abqaiq Plants and Khurais back safely,” Al-Buraik said.
Segregated Sequential Shutdown
At Khurais, shutting down its “intelligent field” was a fine art in the remote control of high-end technology from a central control room.
Abqaiq’s shutdown decision meant closing more than 100 emergency valves controlling the flow of sour crude oil. Closing down an oil and gas facility has to be done sequentially, with its utility plants last.
With emergency shutdown systems segregated into several risk areas, prompt protection and isolation are provided to critical plant areas and equipment.
When an operational incident happens, any part of the facility can be shut down, while remaining parts continue operating.
Extinguishing blazes quickly prevents the spread of fire, and minimizes heat damage to steel and surrounding equipment.
“When you fight the fire in a timely manner, you prevent the spread and minimize the damage extent,” Al-Buraik said. “That is really the way we handle it.”
Southern Area Oil Producing general manager Fahad M. AbdulKareem says Saudi Aramco has become a beehive of innovation and activity as company and outside experts figure out what will work, and what won’t work for repair and restoration.
Coming Back Even Stronger
The attack has electrified the company’s work atmosphere.
Instead of shutting Saudi Aramco down, thousands of employees, contractors, and suppliers are energized, working around the clock inside the Khurais and Abqaiq Plants and offices — and beyond.
Little time has been given to self-reflection, and Southern Area Oil Producing general manager Fahad M. AbdulKareem is impressed with the enthusiasm toward the repair and restoration.
On the same day of the incident, Saudi Aramco’s “Disaster Control Response Plan” was immediately activated, and by 1 p.m., president and CEO Amin Nasser had assigned the Project Management team to lead the restoration effort.
Installed in 1948, Saudi Aramco’s 71-year-old second stabilization column, known as “Number 2,” was destroyed in the blaze from the attack. The company’s other oldest column, “Number 1,” was installed at Ras Tanura.
While the heat was only starting to cool on the assaulted processing and production infrastructure, the company had already activated decisions and plans for restoration and repair.
AbdulKareem explains the repair and restoration program is following a program of three phases — immediate repair, restore flexibility, and restore sustainability.
“Phase one is about getting the product back safely, and thanks to the high degree to which our supply and service chains have been localized in recent years, the most urgent restoration work was expedited and completed,” said AbdulKareem.
“Phase two is everything back repaired, and final phase three is for all damaged equipment to be permanently restored.”
Ibrahim Al-Sultan in Abqaiq’s oil plant control center.
Before sunrise, Ibrahim Al-Sultan’s routine is to move around the plant.
He was around the pipelines when he heard the buzzing sound of a projectile, which was immediately followed by a deafening explosion.
“There was a big flame, 10-floors high, and I knew it wasn’t operational,” Al-Sultan said.
Following site operating procedure, the shift coordinator moved toward the impacted area to carry out the isolation protocol.
“Soon, we saw it wasn’t one attack. Other tanks began to be struck, and other areas of the facility,” he said. “We received the order to start isolating the plants according to protocol, and for people to secure themselves by sheltering in the control rooms or team buildings.”
Abqaiq operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Al-Sultan, who has worked at the site for 21 years, says it has become a second home for him. “I was shocked at seeing it being destroyed, it was like my home was on fire,” he said.
Describing the actions of the front line workers as amazing, he said deluge systems to cool the hydrocarbons were activated straightaway.
“We operate one of the world’s largest oil and gas facilities and we were able to extinguish the fires within hours,” said Al-Sultan proudly.
Proud of how quickly Khurais came back online and is being restored, Oil Train-2 operations supervisor Saud B. Al-Subaei sheltered his colleagues and supported extinguishing the Oil Train-2 fire.
It was coming toward the end of the night shift.
Among the preparations diligently commenced by Oil Train-2 operations supervisor Saud B. Al-Subaei was preparing the morning report, collecting DCS data, and finalizing the operators’ daily check lists.
Working at Khurais since its commencement in 2009, Al-Subaei intimately knows the sounds of the central processing facility.
Four of the five trains were operating smoothly when their humming was abruptly interrupted with a sound so loud it caused a tremor.
“An abnormal sound came through,” Al-Subaei said.
“Train-5 was undergoing test and inspection and we thought something may have gone wrong with that.”
While he was standing in front of Oil Train-2, the second strike hit around 15 meters in front of him.
“I heard the incident commander on the radio, and went directly to shutdown, sheltered my employees, and performed a headcount on my operators,” said Al-Subaei.
“After that, we extinguished the Oil Train-2 fire, which allowed firefighters to focus on other areas.
“When the projectile hit, I thought about the operators inside as they are my responsibility.
“Everything is back to normal now with full capacity.
“I am really proud of how Aramco people restored the facility in a timely manner and overcome the challenge.”
Abqaiq Plants Operations manager Khalid S. Al Ghamdi says Saudi Aramco’s “Emergency Response Plan” details people’s functions, outlines the coordination of emergency response activities and support before, during, and after an emergency.
supervisor Saud B. Al-Subaei sheltered his colleagues and supported extinguishing the Oil Train-2 fire.
Remarkably, the attacks at Abqaiq and Khurais left no one hurt.
The world greeted the reports of zero fatalities — or even minor injuries — with incredulous surprise.
During the attack, approximately 80 emergency responders responded to the emergency in different emergency and disaster control centers.
The emergency systems worked smoothly to automatically isolate affected areas and ensure containment and safe disposal of the products, and the dedication, commitment, and hard work of the people resulted in timely and effective containment of both attack situations, and the rapid recovery.
“It was really a wonder. Not even a small cut. It was astounding what the first responders did in the plant,” said Abqaiq Plants Operations manager Khalid S. Al Ghamdi.
“Abqaiq is a big facility of global significance, but what is even bigger is the courage of our people and our communities,” he said.
“Despite the many responders from Saudi Aramco organizations and contractors on the day of the Khurais incident, it was remarkable that no one suffered any injury,” said Khurais Producing Department manager Mohammed I. Sowayigh.
“We saw employees show sacrifice and high courage. An employee returned from leave where his father was ill in intensive care, another called from abroad, offering to cut his honeymoon short,” he said.
“There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our people,” Sowayigh said.
“Considering the challenge of Khurais being in a remote area, 170 kilometers from the nearest city before any external emergency support is received. However, the morning of the attack showed that our well-structured emergency response strategy saw numerous fires contained, controlled, and extinguished in a short time.
Oil Train-4 at Khurais was the most severely damaged. From 3:31 until 3:48 a.m., the Kingdom’s second biggest oil field, Khurais, had projectiles aimed at its producing facility, igniting quickly contained fires and scattering shrapnel across piping infrastructure where roughly 200 workers were inside — most carrying out routine maintenance work.
Emergency Response Strategy
“The timely contractor worker evacuation and the employees’ shelter in place were elements of the response strategy, and were proven effective,” he said.
The “Emergency Response Plan” for both sites capitalizes on people, procedures, and systems to recover from emergencies and disasters.
Announced and unannounced emergency drills keep the facility’s emergency response teams in a state of readiness, and the site’s Emergency Response Plan defines individual responsibilities for directing activities required to control and contain an emergency to ensure the safety of personnel, as well as assets.
“The knowledge, confidence, and commitment shown by the emergency response teams was a testament to the frequent training and drills we carry out as well as the extensive preparations we make for events we hope to never face,” Al Ghamdi said.
Support From Saudi Arabia Civil Defense Force
Members of the Kingdom’s Civil Defense Force quickly assembled alongside Abqaiq’s emergency response workers, providing professional help to ensure the fire was quelled, while multiple Civil Defense teams were dispatched to Khurais from Riyadh and al-Hasa to provide any needed assistance.
Operations supervisor Abdullah R. Otaibi says the historic shutdown was a wise decision.
Everyone went out to check the noise.
Operations supervisor Abdullah R. Otaibi was on the third night of his shift when there was a loud noise.
He drove into the field, to check the source of the sound.
After the initial strikes, the power dipped but came back up again.
Otaibi received the call to isolate and returned to the control room to carry this out.
He says shutting down Abqaiq for the first time was sound judgment.
“I am proud of our response,” he said. “Our quick actions kept people safe.
“By using the facility’s design to isolate it, we minimized the damage.
“Everyone assumed their roles and responsibilities, and within minutes, we secured the facility and had activated the dumping system.”
Driving to Train-5 to set up his incident command center, incident commander Ahmad H. Al-Ghamdi conducted ongoing monitoring of the four oil trains on foot as re-starting a vehicle in the emergency area is against protocol.
Rostered on a remote day shift of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Ahmad H. Al-Ghamdi was woken up by a call from the Management Emergency Alert System.
“They said Khurais was under attack in more than one place,” said the shift superintendent.
“I pulled on my fire retardant clothing and didn’t even wash my face.” In the dark, Al-Ghamdi proceeded to the emergency control center.
“I went inside, glanced up at the screen, saw Oil Train-4’s stabilizer was alight, immediately activated the ECC room, and provided the required support to the incident commander on site.”
At 5:50 a.m., Al-Ghamdi handed the incident manager role to the Khurais Producing Department manager, grabbed a vehicle and headed to the central processing facility to assume the incident command role.
After parking at the central control room, he walked to Oil Train-5 to relieve his colleague and friend of the incident command.
“When I walked past Oil Train-4, most of its stabilizer was on fire,” Al-Ghamdi said.
At 8:20 a.m. he announced the fire was extinguished and the emergency partially under control.
Supervising operator Ahmad A. Al Ghamdi worked with a team closing a 24-inch gas pipeline to assist with preventing the spread of fire to the NGL plant.
It takes steady nerves to climb up a ladder to close a gas pipeline because it is next to a fire in an oil and gas plant.
With 19 years of experience at Abqaiq, supervising operator Ahmad A. Al Ghamdi had sheltered himself and his team.
The group had finished following the emergency protocol, and were now sitting in the shelter, listening to the radio.
Al Ghamdi got a call from the shift coordinator at 5 a.m. to go outside and isolate some lines.
“We needed to isolate the valves for an overhead gas line, because the tank next to it was on fire,” he said.
“We were afraid the fire could spread through these pipes to the NGL plant.”
Al Ghamdi set out in the heat and smoke with a group of operators to close the valve of the 24-inch pipeline, which fed into the 60-inch main NGL pipeline.
Al Ghamdi climbed up the ladder successfully closed the 24-inch pipeline valve.
Quick action by Abdulmohsen N. Nashmi and Faisal Almutairi extinguished the fire in the third facility to be hit — Oil Train-3 — within minutes, enabling it to be the first returned to service.
Oil Train-3 and -4 supervisor Abdulmohsen N. Nashmi was assigned to Train-3.
He heard the first strike inside the train’s team building.
“It was very loud and everything shook like there was an earthquake,” Nashmi said.
“I got up to check the monitors but saw nothing, so I called the control center and the DCS operator told me Oil Train-5 had been struck.”
The third hit was to Nashmi’s area, and he activated the emergency shutdown system to Oil Train-3 and -4.
Outside, he and operator Faisal Almutairi worked together to start the two fire monitors, which extinguished the blaze and enabled the fire crew to focus on more serious matters.
The two then sheltered back in the team building, awaiting further instructions from the incident commander.
Calm and thoughtful, Nashmi has worked at Khurais since its inception in 2009, and advises that if people are protected, assets will also be protected.
“Every bolt and pipe bent will come back better than before,” he says with quiet assurance.
“I am proud to part of Saudi Aramco and Khurais.”
Pieces of the most severely impacted piping at Khurais.
Operations, Maintenance, and Engineering Staff Rush for Restoration Ideas
While fires were being extinguished, Abqaiq Plants experts started generating a restoration plan by prioritizing repair activities to revive crude production in a timely manner.
“Operations, Maintenance, and Engineering staff were on the spot, developing solutions for the repairs,” said Abqaiq Plants Maintenance manager Sami S. Al Huwais.
“Some of the critical material requirements for restoration were sourced in the first few hours, which proved to be a major success factor.
“It was amazing to see them coming up with solutions, deciding the materials, and arranging to source it locally or internationally, with the construction contractor mobilizing and gearing up to start the reconstruction,” said Al Huwais.
Khurais Quickly Resurfaced
Production at Khurais returned within 24 hours, and in only 10 days after the attack, the facilities’ capacity was fully restored.
Less than a month later — other than Oil Train-4 — the modern site has re-emerged as its usual neat and shiny self.
Khurais Producing Department manager Mohammed I. Sowayigh explains that Oil Train-5 was under test and inspection during the attack, with more than 80 contractor maintenance workers on the site that morning: “With the exceptional response of our operators, all workers were evacuated safely.”
Two other fires resulting from strikes at Oil Train-2 and -3 were extinguished in 10 minutes, while the other two fires at Oil Train-4 and -5 were put out within four hours. Oil Train-1 was not struck.
“The challenge with the type of damage faced in Khurais’ piping and equipment is the hidden damage caused by hundreds of fragments and shrapnel hitting piping, equipment, structure beams, and electrical and instrumentation systems,” said Sowayigh.
“This has mandated extensive surveys and equipment scanning by our teams to assure readiness before the oil trains startup.
“We are now in phase two, restoring the redundancy phase, having repaired a good amount of the damage in phase one,” he said.
— The Arabian Sun: October 16, 2019 | Vol. LXXIV, No. 40