Inferno on the Gulf: Witnesses recount rig blast
Associated Press Writers
Vail, CO Colorado
VENICE, Louisiana – Oleander Benton was chatting with a friend in the laundry when the lights went out. The other woman had just gotten up to find a maintenance person when the deep-sea oil rig shook with an ear-shattering “BANG,” followed by a long, loud “hisssss.”
Benton’s safety training kicked in. The cook hit the floor as ceiling tiles and light fixtures came crashing down on her head and back. The concussion had blown a door off its hinges and pinned her friend to the floor.
“My leg! My leg!” the woman screamed.
Benton rose to her feet and stepped over the debris, but she couldn’t move the door. She told her friend to lie flat and slide herself out, and the two made their way into the darkened hallway, where a man in a white T-shirt appeared out of the swirling dust and beckoned.
“Come on, Miss O!” he shouted. “Go this way. This is the real deal! This is the REAL DEAL!”
After a nightmare journey through halls illuminated only by “EXIT” signs, and clogged with dazed and injured people, Benton emerged onto the deck of the Deepwater Horizon.
Fire and mud were spewing from the rig’s shattered 242-foot (74-meter) derrick. People with ghastly head wounds were scrambling about.
Many had been asleep when the blast occurred, and wandered the slick, debris-strewn deck shoeless, clad in little more than their orange lifejackets, their bare skin speckled with bits of white insulation from blown-out walls.
Benton slipped and stumbled as she headed for her assigned lifeboat.
As a worker checked off names, Benton was transported back five years to Hurricane Katrina.
She had spent five hellish days in the swelter of the Louisiana Superdome. That was the last time she had felt this kind of heat, this kind of terror.
It was April 20 – Benton’s 52nd birthday.
With its complement of 126 riggers, contractors and support personnel, the Deepwater Horizon – floating 48 miles (77 kilometers) out in the Gulf of Mexico – had a population larger than that of at least a half-dozen Louisiana towns.
April 20 was a big day for BP PLC and the rig’s inhabitants.
The day before, contractors from Halliburton Energy Services Inc. had finished cementing the well’s pipes nearly 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the water’s surface. Workers were busy setting a second seal at the well head, one of the last steps before the rig could move off, and the exploration well could make the transition to a production well.
BP executives were on board to celebrate that milestone and another achievement – Deepwater Horizon was the first rig to go seven years without a lost-time accident. They were gathered in the living quarters just below the working deck when an enormous bubble of explosive methane gas erupted from the sea floor and rocketed up the drill pipe’s 21-inch (53-centimeter) metal sheath toward the surface.
It was around 10 p.m.
Crane operator Micah Sandell, 40, was in the cab 30 feet (9 meters) off the deck when he saw the water and mud shoot up and out of the derrick. He knew immediately it was a blowout, and he got on the radio to tell the crew to move to the front of the rig.
Then something exploded.
Sandell was knocked to the floor, and fire engulfed the cabin. Certain he was about to die, the devout Baptist clapped his hands over his head and cried, “Oh, God. No.”
But after a few seconds, he stood up and realized the fireball had passed him over. He made it halfway down the stairs before another blast occurred, throwing him 15 feet (4.6 meters) to the steel deck.
He got up again and ran, feeling his way along the deck rail around the port side toward the lifeboats.
Hanging off the side of the rig and covered, the boats could hold up to 50 people each. Crew members with clipboards called out names as people clambered aboard.
Some couldn’t wait any longer, and jumped.
It was 80 feet (24 meters) to the water. A person falling from that height would take about 2.25 seconds to hit the water and experience about 20 Gs – roughly the same force as a car hitting a brick wall at 55 mph (89 kph).
In Port Fourchon harbor, the service vessel Joe Griffin was tied up at the Halliburton slip. Capt. Nate Foster was standing on the bridge shortly before 11 p.m. when the radio crackled to life.
“We need you to get out there as fast as you can,” the dispatcher barked. “We have people in the water.”
The orange-hulled vessel is primarily a supply ship, and much of its 280-foot (85-meter) length is open deck space. But the Joe Griffin is also equipped with two water cannons, each capable of shooting 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) of water per minute.
Foster picked up the ship’s phone and called the engine room.
“I want the engines started,” the 37-year-old Montanan told the oiler. “We need ’em NOW. Don’t let them warm up.”
As the vessel entered open water, Foster opened the throttle all the way, to 12 knots.
At that speed, it would take nine and a half hours to reach the Deepwater Horizon.
The 260-foot (79-meter) Damon B. Bankston, a black-hulled cargo vessel, was tethered to the Deepwater Horizon. That day, it had been pumping drilling mud from the rig for use at the next job.
The first explosion threw Seaman Elton Johnson of Bunkie, Louisiana, about seven feet (2.1 meters) into an engine-room door, temporarily knocking him unconscious. When he came to, he staggered to the deck and looked over the rail to see people floating in the water.
Like the rest of the crew, Johnson began fishing out survivors.
On the Deepwater Horizon, deck pusher Bill Johnson, supervising operations on the deck, worked his way across the rig, acrid smoke burning his lungs. He ushered two members of his crew into a lifeboat and shoved off, but there was one man missing.
Crane operator Aaron Dale Burkeen had relieved Sandell for dinner.
The 37-year-old father of two had just recently received his 10-year certificate. April 20 was his and wife Rhonda’s eighth wedding anniversary; his birthday was four days away.
When the first concussion hit, he began lowering his crane’s 150-foot (46-meter) boom into its cradle and locking it down. He got it to about a 30-degree angle when he decided to make a run for it.
He was about halfway down the spiral staircase when a massive explosion occurred. Bill Johnson – who was not just Burkeen’s direct supervisor, but also one of his best friends – watched helplessly from the rocking boat as the whole starboard side of the rig erupted in a cloud of smoke and flame.
Burkeen just vanished.
The Joe Griffin was still 35 miles (56 kilometers) out when the crew saw it – a glow on the horizon like a mini-sunrise.
Twenty minutes out, Capt. Foster ordered the crew to fire up the water cannon pumps. When the vessel arrived at the scene around 8:30 a.m., flames were shooting several hundred feet into the air, and oil was raining down on the two-dozen or so boats trying to fight the fire and ferry survivors.
Even through the glass windows and protective shell of the bridge, First Mate Doug Peake could feel the inferno’s heat on his skin. As he trained the cannon on the fire, he thought to himself: “This is a lost cause.”
A little way off, Sandell stood on the Bankston’s plank deck and watched the rig that had been his home for the past eight years pitch and burn.
He wanted desperately to call home and tell his wife and their three children that he was alive. There were satellite phones on board, but the workers were not allowed to use them.
When Sandell arrived at Port Fourchon early the next morning, he still hadn’t slept. Eleven rig workers were unaccounted for, including Aaron Dale Burkeen.
Even as the Deepwater Horizon was in its last throes before sinking beneath the Gulf, speculation was already rampant about what had caused the explosion. Was it negligence? A freak accident? Foul play?
Sandell and the others just wanted to go ashore and call loved ones. But there was one more thing to do next.
As he debarked, he noticed some Coast Guard and company officers sitting at a table, a row of portable toilets behind them. Before they left the docks, the workers would have to be drug tested.
Tired and angry, Sandell stood in line and filled out forms. When his turn came, he took the plastic cup, stepped inside one of the outhouses, and closed the door behind him.
Associated Press Writers Harry R. Weber, Pauline Arrillaga, Curt Anderson, Mitch Weiss, Michael Kunzelman and Noaki Schwartz contributed to this report.
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