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Apr 21, 2010 10:19 PM by Letitia Walker

Search for Missing Will Continue Overnight

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Coast Guard by sea and air planned to

search overnight for 11 workers missing since a thunderous

explosion rocked an oil drilling platform that continued to burn

late Wednesday, more than a day since it sent a fireball into the

night sky. Seventeen people were injured, four critically.

      Nearly 100 other workers made it aboard a supply boat and were

expected to reach shore by late evening. The blast Tuesday night

aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast

could prove to be one of the nation's deadliest offshore drilling

accidents of the past half-century.

      The Coast Guard held out hope that the missing workers escaped

in one of the platform's covered lifeboats. Lt. Sue Kerver said the

cutters Cobia and Zephyr were in the Gulf searching for survivors

along with three Coast Guard aircraft and a civilian helicopter.

She said the search would continue overnight.

      Authorities could not say when the flames might die out on the

400-by-250-foot rig, which is roughly twice the size of a football

field, according the website of rig owner Transocean Ltd. A column

of boiling black smoke rose hundreds of feet over the Gulf of

Mexico as fireboats shot streams of water at the blaze.

      "We're hoping everyone's in a life raft," Coast Guard Senior

Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said.

      Adrian Rose, vice president of Transocean, said the explosion

appeared to be a blowout, in which natural gas or oil forces its

way up a well pipe and smashes the equipment. But precisely what

went wrong was under investigation.

      Crews were doing routine work before the explosion and there

were no signs of trouble, Rose said.

      A total of 126 workers were aboard the rig when it blew up. The

Coast Guard said 17 were taken by air or sea to hospitals. Four

were reported in critical condition. Others suffered burns, broken

legs and smoke inhalation.

      Company officials had not identified any of the missing workers.

The Neshoba County Democrat newspaper in Philadelphia, Miss.,

reported that the county sheriff's office notified a Sandtown

family that a family member was among the missing.

      One of the deadliest U.S. offshore drilling accidents was in

1964, when a catamaran-type drilling barge operated by Pan American

Petroleum Corp. near Eugene Island, about 80 miles off Louisiana in

the Gulf of Mexico, suffered a blowout and explosion while drilling

a well. Twenty-one crew members died.

      Kelly Eugene waited with nine family members for husband Kevin

Eugene, 46, a cook on the Deepwater Horizon. A catering company

operating on the rig notified her he was safe.

      "He's on the boat. That's all we know. And that's all we need

to know," she said.

      The rig was tilting as much as 10 degrees after the blast, but

earlier fears that it might topple over appeared unfounded. Coast

Guard environmental teams were on standby, though officials said

the damage to the environment appeared minimal so far.

      The rig, which was under contract to the oil giant BP, was doing

exploratory drilling but was not in production, Transocean

spokesman Greg Panagos said. Seventy-nine Transocean workers, six

BP employees and 41 contract workers were aboard.

      Ted Bourgoyne, a retired professor of petroleum engineering at

Louisiana State University, said the explosion was probably caused

by natural gas or a mixture of oil and gas coming up through the

well, combined with some kind of ignition source.

      He said there are numerous defenses on a modern rig to prevent

something like that from happening. For instance, fluids used in

drilling are weighted with barium sulfite to prevent gas from

traveling up the well, and there are alarms to alert workers to

gas. Machinery is built to prevent sparking and is placed as far

away as possible from places where gas might leak.

      "In almost all of these things, there's not one thing that

happens; it's a series of things," Bourgoyne said.

      Rose said the crew had drilled the well to its final depth, more

than 18,000 feet, and was cementing the steel casing at the time of

the explosion.

      "They did not have a lot of time to evacuate. This would have

happened very rapidly," he said.

      According to Transocean's website, the Deepwater Horizon was

built in 2001 in South Korea and is designed to operate in water up

to 8,000 feet deep, drill 5½ miles down, and accommodate a crew of

130. It floats on pontoons and is moored to the sea floor by

several large anchors.

      The site of the accident is known as the Macondo prospect, in

5,000 feet of water.

      Workers typically spend two weeks on the rig at a time, followed

by two weeks off. Offshore oil workers typically earn $40,000 to

$60,000 a year - more if they have special skills.

      Last September, the Deepwater Horizon set a world deepwater

record when it drilled down just over 35,000 feet at another BP

site in the Gulf of Mexico, Panagos said.

      "It's one of the more advanced rigs out there," he said.

Panagos did not know how much the rig cost to build but said a

similar one today would run $600 million to $700 million.

      Kelly Eugene said her husband flew to work on the rig, and until

Tuesday's explosion, that was the part of his job that scared her

most. Kevin Eugene has worked in the offshore industry about 12

years and had been on the Deepwater Horizon about a month. Until

now, she said, hurricane evacuations were the worst he had been

through.

      "My biggest fear is the helicopter ride," she said.

      Working on offshore oil rigs is a dangerous job but has become

safer in recent years thanks to improved training, safety systems

and maintenance, said Joe Hurt, regional vice president for the

International Association of Drilling Contractors.

      Since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries

and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf, according to the federal

Minerals Management Service.

      There are 42 rigs either drilling or doing upgrades and

maintenance in depths of 1,000 feet or greater in the Gulf of

Mexico, according to the agency. They employ an estimated 35,000

people. Transocean has 14 rigs in the Gulf and 140 worldwide.

      The deadliest offshore drilling accident took place in 1988,

when an Occidental Petroleum platform about 120 miles off Aberdeen,

Scotland, was rocked by explosions and fire. A total of 167 men

were killed.

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