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Apr 22, 2010 12:19 PM by Letitia Walker

Thursday: Oil Rig Explosion Update

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) - A Coast Guard helicopter and rescue

plane resumed the search Thursday for 11 workers missing after a

massive explosion aboard an oil platform off the Louisiana coast.

The rig continued to burn as supply vessels shot water into it

try to control the flames enough to keep it from sinking.

Rescue crews have covered the 1,940-square-mile search area by

air 12 times and by boat five times, Petty Officer Casey Baker

said. The boats searched all night, hoping the missing workers

might have been able to get to a covered lifeboat with supplies.

Families waited anxiously for hourly updates. Rhonda Burkeen

said her husband, crane operator Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, was among

the missing. The Burkeens have two children and live in the

Sandtown community in east-central Mississippi.

Transocean Ltd. spokesman Guy Cantwell said 111 workers who made

it off the Deepwater Horizon safely after Tuesday night's blast

were ashore Thursday, and four others were still on a boat that

operates an underwater robot. A robot will eventually be used to

stop the flow of oil or gas to the rig, cutting off the fire. He

said officials have not decided when that will happen.

Seventeen others hurt in the blast had been brought to shore

Wednesday with burns, broken legs and smoke inhalation. Four were

critically injured.

A slow trek across the water brought most of the uninjured

survivors to Port Fourchon, where they were checked by doctors

before being brought to a hotel in suburban New Orleans to reunite

with their relatives early Thursday.

One worker said he was awakened by alarms and scrambled to get

on a life boat.

"I've been working offshore 25 years and I've never seen

anything like this before," said the man, who like others at the

hotel declined to give his name.

Stanley Murray of Monterey, La., was reunited with his son,

Chad, an electrician aboard the rig who had ended his shift just

before the explosion.

"If he had been there five minutes later, he would have been

burned up," Stanley Murray said.

The rig owned by Transocean was under contract to oil giant BP

and was doing exploratory drilling about 50 miles off the coast of

Louisiana.

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

field, according the Transocean's website. A column of boiling

black smoke rose hundreds of feet over the Gulf of Mexico.

Officials said environmental damage appeared minimal so far.

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.

A total of 126 workers were aboard. Seventy-nine were Transocean

workers, six were BP employees and 41 were contracted.

The blast could be one of the nation's deadliest offshore

drilling accidents of the past half-century.

One of the deadliest was in 1964, when a catamaran-type drilling

barge operated by Pan American Petroleum Corp. near Eugene Island,

about 80 miles off Louisiana, suffered a blowout and explosion

while drilling a well. Twenty-one crew members died. The deadliest

offshore drilling explosion was in 1988 about 120 miles off

Aberdeen, Scotland, in which 167 men were killed.

Rose said the Deepwater Horizon 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 rig 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.

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.

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.

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