RIP Christophe de Margerie

I spent the last week in a somewhat remote village in Kazakhstan, close to the Uzbek border, visiting a friend who was getting married.  The house in which I was staying did not have a fixed line telephone let alone internet, and with roaming charges coming in at a bargain 13 Euros per Mb I was effectively cut off from my normal information channels.  As such, I received the terrible news that Total’s CEO Christophe de Margerie had been killed in a plane crash in Moscow via text message.

As I managed to scrape together more details I realised with some discomfort that the crash had occurred at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.  I’d never heard of this airport (always using Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo before) until I transferred through there on my flights between Paris and Shimkent – about 24 hours before the accident. By the time I flew back on the return trip a few days later, the wreckage had been cleared.

There are two things I would like to say.  Firstly, the descriptions of de Margerie as being hugely charismatic, unique, outspoken, and held in high regard are absolutely true.  A couple of years ago he visited us in Nigeria to open a new office, and I turned up to the function in the company of my wife, who was over on a visit.  The Big Moustache stood in front of the crowd of about 100-200 people, and because he was pushed for time waved away the bloke who was standing with his pile of notes and spoke off the cuff.  I don’t remember much about what he actually said, but he delivered it well and his presence filled the room.  What happened next I remembered more.  The Total CEO finished speaking, received the applause, walked a few metres across the room to my wife and asked “Are you Russian?” and then proceeded to entertain the two of us with stories of his trips to Russia for about 15 minutes.  To be honest I didn’t say much, I left the talking to my wife who, with her hotel sales background, can charm just about anybody.  But I did invite him to my birthday party on the following weekend, but sadly he was departing that night.  From this experience I can assure you that he was a man of enormous character and charm, and genuinely likeable.  If you were in a business meeting or a barbecue, you would have wanted Christophe de Margerie there at the top of the invitation list.  To have a drink with he would have been one hell of a lot of fun.  I am sure he will be sadly missed by all those who knew him.  It is a terrible shame.

The second thing I want to talk about is the circumstances of the crash.  What cannot be denied is that this is a freak accident: high-speed collisions with ground objects in an airport of this size are extremely rare (Tenerife in 1977 being an obvious exception), and it must be said that de Margerie was desperately unlucky.  The odds of the CEO of a major oil comany dying in a plane crash like this were negligibly low, but it happened nonetheless.  Naturally, this being Russia, conspiracy theories are now circulating (I will not bother linking to them) to the effect that he was knocked off by the CIA or some other nefarious organisation for opposing the sanctions on Russia (which he did) and – it wouldn’t be a proper conspiracy theory without this one being wheeled out – suggesting oil could be sold in Euros (incidentally: the idea that selling oil in anything other than dollars concerning the Americans one jot doesn’t stand up to a basic comparison of the volume of oil sold daily versus dollars traded).  All of this is nonsense on stilts: nobody had anything to gain by murdering de Margerie, and even if they did there are methods of achieving it (ramming his car with a large lorry, for example) than presumably paying an elderly snowplough driver to time his entry onto the runway with such precision that he can clip the wing of a speeding plane.  It does a grave disservice to de Margerie to even entertain this rubbish.

A lot was said early on about the allegedly intoxicated state of the snowplough driver.  Here is where I think I can add some value.  His family were quick to point out that he had a chronic heart problem and hence could not drink, but I doubt anyone was fooled by that.  He may well have a heart problem and he may well not drink, but nobody familiar with Russia would believe that something like a mere heart condition would stop somebody drinking.  There is a good reason why life expectancy among Russian men is so low.  But even supposing he was “drunk”, I think this is a red herring.  Without advocating that we should all go about our daily business under the influence of alcohol (far from it), it is a fact that when Russians drink – even enough to render a westerner unconscious – they can often still function effectively to the point of operating complex machinery.  This is not a desirable state of affairs as the alcohol will certainly impair things like reaction times, but it is not a question of comparing this to a British teenager crashing his car after drinking in the pub.  If machinery operators, drivers, and pilots being drunk in Russia caused crashes the place would not function at all, especially during the Soviet times.  Drinking is so widespread that Russians joke some guys know how to operate the machinery only when drunk.  I don’t know what percentage of Russian pilots are drunk at the yoke, but I am positive it is higher than the percentage of actual crashes to completed flights.  So my guess is the snowplough driver was “drunk” pretty much every day of his working life and never had an incident, yet on this particular day he was unfortunate enough to have an accident and get breathalysed (there is a strong parallel here with the 2012 Denzil Washington film Flight).  But I doubt it was his alcohol consumption which caused or even contributed to the crash.  I feel extremely sorry for the man – on TV he appears to be completely bewildered, and at 60 years old with a heart condition might well be facing the rest of his life in prison.

So if not a drunk snowplough driver, what did cause the crash?  Put simply: Russian managerial and organisational incompetence.  Obviously there was a huge communication and systems failure here.  A snowplough should be nowhere near a working runway, especially at night, and there should be robust controls in place to ensure this sort of accident does not occur.  Most likely such controls were in place – once – but as is so common in Russia a combination of complacency, bad management, laziness, poor incentives, and general incompetence has meant the controls were circumvented and the safeguards failed.  The snowplough driver said he got lost, which I can well believe is true – if the visibility was a bad as he says it is.  Guaranteed the equipment he was operating would have been from the 1980s or before with no system of indicating to the control tower where it is at any time.  And with the speed snowploughs move even if he got lost he should have been nowhere near a working runway.

I am pleased to see the authorities appear to be taking an interest in the air traffic controllers and head of runway cleaning at Vnukovo, and hopefully the rapid resignations of the airport’s CEO and deputy will not put them beyond the reach of the investigation (but being Russia, chances are some poor sod in the lower ranks will be scapegoated whilst the well-connected bosses who presided over it walk away scott-free.  Russia has form in this area).

Like so many deaths in Russia, this is a tragic accident which probably could have been avoided.  It is a terrible shame for Christophe de Margerie, his family, all those that knew him, Total, the oil industry, and France.  May the Big Moustache live long in our memories.

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12 thoughts on “RIP Christophe de Margerie

  1. I suspect your summary of the probabilities involved in this accident are right. However, one little thing intrigues me. What was it about your wife that immediately tipped off M. de Margerie to the fact that she was Russian? Snow on her boots, perhaps? ‘I don’t know but I think we should be told’!

  2. @David,

    By a huge coincidence, I had a woman come in to my shop on Friday. I clocked her and thought “Russian” – and the shop is in a small town in East Sussex where Russians are more than rare. She had a look that was a mix of Asian and Caucasian but was fairly tall. More importantly, she had an air about her stride. A presence which is knowable but indefinable.

    Once she opened her mouth I knew I was not far off. She declared herself as Siberian but had been born in Alma Ata, a place, much to her delight, that I had visited in the last months of the Soviet Union.

    My point is that if one has been around the world a bit as M. Big Moustache had obviously been, one can spot likely candidates for any nationality. It really is just an opening gambit for interesting conversation even when one gets it wrong.

    Having said that, as with you, I would still love to know why de Margerie got it spot on.

    Over to you our host.

    Paul

  3. Anyone who has spent time in Russia can spot a Russian – man or woman, but particularly a woman – a mile off. There’s just no mistaking them. Paul nails it:

    More importantly, she had an air about her stride. A presence which is knowable but indefinable.

    My wife doesn’t look particularly Russian physically (more Danish, German, or Dutch) but dressed up there was no mistaking her in that crowd (there was one other Russian girl there too, wife of my friend and colleague).

  4. Then I can’t help wondering if similar identity traits apply to the English. What characteristics, one wonders, mark you out as English – no, on second thoughts, don’t answer that!

  5. The snowplow man could be an old-school type but generally speaking, I’ve seen a huge decline in tolerance towards workplace intoxication since Soviet times. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it looked like 90% of working-class men drank pretty often, half of them were alcoholics, and yes, workers would show up for work drunk or tipsy. But under Communism, you could not fire a drunk and hire a sober Tajik or Belarusian or Russian provincial. Nowadays, as an example, when oil companies fly shifts to production sites, even traces of alcohol in a worker’s blood can have him sent back home.

    But that doesn’t matter much, as you say, since the man could not have been drunk enough to lose it completely. (The snowplow was reportedly a Schmidt TS 10000, not Soviet junk.) One has to agree it was a sign of mismanagement, especially as there were apparently two snowplows near the runway – the other one stayed off it but was dangerously close. And it’s fatal mismanagement close to home, that is to the Kremlin. Vnukovo is a nicely located, fast-growing airport to the southwest of the city, but it’s also been THE government airport since Soviet times. What happened was a friend of Putin’s got killed in the same airport and possibly on the same runway as used by Putin’s plane.

    I guess that explains why the obnoxious spokesman for the investigative committee, Vladimir Markin, publicly accused first the driver and then the whole airport management team without as much as waiting for the black boxes to be deciphered, less than 24 hours after the crash. Such statements are enormously prejudicial to the accused. Three people got sent to jail pending trial, as if they were out-of-control street thugs, and two were placed under house arrest. There is one country in Europe where cops brag incessantly about solving crimes (which are seldom solved) and feed lies to the gutter press, where you can be jailed for a year without charges and where judges are lazy and dishonest – that’s Italy, which I sometimes think would be better off governed by the Mafia. But at least Italy is not a dictatorship.

    On spotting Russians (or members of any other nation), I’m sure there are subtler clues than just clothes, gait and accent. Beach peddlers know which language to speak to you when you’re almost naked, still and silent.

  6. @ Alex K.,

    Excellent commentary as usual. I didn’t know the snowplough was modern, perhaps my memories of the system in place in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport (old jet engine mounted on a Soviet-era flatbed truck!) were skewing my assessment!

    Nowadays, as an example, when oil companies fly shifts to production sites, even traces of alcohol in a worker’s blood can have him sent back home.

    Hmmm. Yes and no. Certainly the alcohol testing got much more rigorous when I was on Sakhalin, and any expat caught over the limit was booted on the spot. But the Russian labour law still doesn’t allow for somebody to be sacked for *any* first offence, and for a foreign company to sack a local was always fraught with difficulties. On several occasions the company either pretended it didn’t happen or shuffled the employee off to another position. But on the other hand, the Russian companies can flout the law to their heart’s content as they usually have the connections to ensure the plaintiff will not get a speedy and/or favourable verdict; that, and they can always threaten to put “drunk” in the labour book, which will condemn them for the rest of their career. I am sure things have improved vastly since the Soviet times, but I recall perhaps 6-7 years ago flying through Khabarovsk and encountering a Rosneft drilling team (half with missing fingers) who were on their way back to the drill site from holidays and could barely stand up.

    What happened was a friend of Putin’s got killed in the same airport and possibly on the same runway as used by Putin’s plane.

    Indeed. I think this is why people are still talking about it a week later.

  7. Even cold sober pilots get lost on airports. I’ve needed help to navigate on the taxiways of Milwaukee, in broad daylight. Van

  8. Thanks for the compliment, Tim. As for Russian rules for firing boozers, I agree they vary. About ten years ago, I worked for a Moscow company that lost a lawsuit to its ex-employee who claimed he had been wrongly dismissed for showing up drunk at work. He was reinstated – but he had an office job. A drunk employee on a drilling or production site can be dangerous. I’m sure there are ways to get around the Labor Code – from what I know, I cannot imagine TNK-BP, half-foreign as it was, tolerating drunkenness. Rosneft in 2007 was a combination of ex-Yukos (good) and non-Yukos (state-run), and I guess the guys you met in Khabarovsk were from the non-Yukos part because they were headed for Sakhalin (where else?) and Yukos had no assets there. I’ve heard that when Rosneft developed Vankor, they would search every incoming vehicle for contraband, including alcohol.

    BTW, did you know that Rosneft’s VP for human resources is a former head of the Russian state agency overseeing correctional institutions (UFSIN), a sort of prison-guard-in-chief?

  9. OI!!!!! Dearieme! “You never write, you never call, you don’t love me any more!”

    Come home, “There’s a welcome in the hillside” of D&N!

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