Posted: Apr 21, 2010 9:19 PM by Letitia Walker
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
"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
"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