BAQAIQ, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - When 18 drones slammed into the world’s biggest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia last Saturday, the roughly hundred workers on weekend night shift leapt into action to confront the blazes that had erupted.
In the pre-dawn darkness, emergency responders arrived within minutes to the attack at Baqaiq plant and a near simultaneous strike down the road at Khurais, the kingdom’s second-biggest oil field.
Six days after the assault, which hit at the heart of the Saudi energy industry and intensified a decades-long struggle with arch-rival Iran, state oil giant Aramco opened the sites to the world’s media on Friday to observe the damage as well as repair efforts.
Riyadh and Washington blame the attack on Iran, which denies any involvement, and dismissed a claim of responsibility by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.
Aramco representatives told reporters how the attack had unfolded on the ground and what the world’s biggest oil firm is doing to get back to normal as it pushes ahead with plans for an initial public offering.
Missiles rained down on Khurais from 0331 until 0348, said Fahad Abdulkarim, general manager for southern area oil operations. Firefighters raced to the scene and put out two fires in five minutes.
“By the time they reached the site…other strikes were also landing on the facilities,” he said. The other two fires took five more hours to extinguish.
Blazes at Abqaiq took seven hours to put out, said Khalid Buraik, a vice president.
Aramco, striking a defiant note, says it will bring back full crude output at both facilities by the end of the month.
The attack on Khurais damaged key piping infrastructure. Damaged segments displayed for cameras had holes ranging in size from a bullet to a fist.
Abdulkarim said the fires had turned oil in the pipes into a black tarry coal which covered much of the nearby ground, but by Friday, only a small mound of debris remained as workers in jumpsuits hosed down the ground.
The drones that crashed into Abqaiq, a 70-year-old plant, bore meter-wide holes through the upper sections of large spherical containers and tall columns of piping.
Thousands of workers are toiling around the clock to repair the damage. In some structures, gaping holes are being patched over but others will need to be replaced completely, the company representatives said.
The full extent of the damage - and its cost both in property damage and lost business - may never be revealed.
Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alistair Bell