ABERDEEN, Scotland -- A rescue fleet of boats and aircraft safely evacuated 66 of the 67 workers aboard a North Sea oil rig that caught fire Thursday 80 miles from where 167 men died in a similar accident in July, authorities said.
One man was missing and feared dead.
Most of the workers aboard the Ocean Odyssey drilling rig took to lifeboats or jumped into the sea after the blaze broke out at lunchtime, news reports said.
Thursday's accident occurred only 80 miles south of where a July 6 explosion and fire aboard the Piper Alpha platform killed 167 workers.
Five hours after Thursday's fire broke out, Cmdr. Derek Ancona of the Coast Guard said, 'Regrettably I must say that only 66 of the 67 men have been recovered.'
The Ocean Odyssey, operated by the British arm of the American Arco oil company, was doing routine exploration drilling 138 miles east of Aberdeen when the fire broke out, said Arco spokesman Denny Tower.
'When we first heard of the fire we were afraid, of course, it was going to be a second Piper Alpha with the same loss of life,' but that did not turn out to be the case, Ancona said.
He and other experts said the fire appeared caused by a 'blowout,' a sudden rush of gas or oil up the well that gets ignited.
Tower said a blowout could not be ruled out but that Arco did not know what caused the fire. He said earlier in a radio interview that 'at 12:45 a gas leak developed and a fire ensued.' But Tower told United Press International that his radio statement no longer applied.
A Royal Air Force spokesman said that a fleet of eight military and civilian helicopters lifted the oil workers off the rig. He later said he was wrong and that the men used lifeboats to get to the safety of nearby support and supply ships near the Ocean Odyssey.
The helicopters were used to ferry the workers to Aberdeen, authorities said.
When the alarm was raised at midday by the rig's support ships, a swarm of helicopters and ships rushed to the rescue. The British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was 100 miles away and sent four Sea King helicopters, the navy said, and other NATO vessels returning from an exercise were in the vicinity.
'We had supply and work boats standing by and the men ready for evacuation at thetime the incident happened, so a very orderly evacuation took place,' Tower said. 'They were evacuated into lifeboats and then into support vessels. The helicopters are collecting them now.'
He said the Ocean Odyssey, a semi-submersible rig, is owned by Odeco, a New Orleans-based company.
Ancona said at sundown the rig 'is on fire and shows all the classic indications of a blowout. The derrick is alight but the rig itself appears stable.'
A local member of Parliament said if the well was not capped it could lead to 'serious pollution in the North Sea.'
The government ordered a review of safety in the North Sea after the Piper Alpha disaster and called Thursday for an inquiry into the causes of the latest fire.
Work on the remains of the Piper Alpha production platform, operated by Occidental Petroleum, continues. The company says that accident followed a leak in a gas compression module but that the exact cause of the explosion is not yet known.
The Piper Alpha explosion was the worst offshore disaster ever.