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Updated: April 23, 2010 08:35 IST

Burning U.S. oil rig sinks, setting stage for big spill

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In this aerial photo taken on Wednesday in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 80 km southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, an oil slick is seen as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
In this aerial photo taken on Wednesday in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 80 km southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, an oil slick is seen as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.

A deepwater oil platform that burned for more than a day after a massive explosion sank into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, creating the potential for a major spill as it underscored the slim chances that the 11 workers still missing survived.

The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, which burned violently until the gulf itself extinguished the fire, could unleash more than 1,135,600 litres of crude a day into the water. The environmental hazards would be greatest if the spill were to reach the Louisiana coast, some 80 km away.

Crews searched by air and water for the missing workers, hoping they had managed to reach a lifeboat, but one relative said family members have been told it’s unlikely any of the missing survived Tuesday night’s blast. The Coast Guard found two lifeboats but no one was inside. More than 100 workers escaped the explosion and fire; four were critically injured.

Carolyn Kemp said her grandson, Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, was among the missing. She said he would have been on the drilling platform when it exploded.

“They’re assuming all those men who were on the platform are dead,” Mr. Kemp said. “That’s the last we’ve heard.”

Jed Kersey said his 33-year-old son, John, had finished his shift on the rig floor and was sleeping when the explosion happened. He said his son told him that all 11 missing workers were on the rig floor at the time of the explosion.

An alarm sounded and the electricity went out, sending John Kersey and other workers scurrying to a lifeboat that took them to a nearby service boat, his father said.

“They waited for as many people as they could,” Mr. Jed Kersey said. He said his son wasn’t ready to talk publicly about his experience.

As the rig burned, supply vessels shot water into it to try to keep it afloat and avoid an oil spill, but there were additional explosions on Thursday. Officials had previously said the environmental damage appeared minimal, but new challenges have arisen now that the platform has sunk.

The rig carried 2,649,700 litres of diesel fuel, but that would likely evaporate if the fire didn’t consume it.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said crews saw a 1.5 km-by-8 km rainbow sheen with a dark centre of what appeared to be a crude oil mix on the surface of the water. She said there wasn’t any evidence crude oil was coming out after the rig sank, but officials also aren’t sure what’s going on underwater. They have dispatched a vessel to check.

The oil will do much less damage at sea than it would if it hits the shore, said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“If it gets landward, it could be a disaster in the making,” Ms. Sarthou said.

Doug Helton, incident operations coordinator for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s office of response and restoration, said the spill is not expected to come onshore in the next three to four days. “But if the winds were to change, it could come ashore more rapidly,” he said.

At the worst-case figure of 1,135,600 litres a day, it would take more than a month for the amount of crude oil spilled to equal the 40 million litres spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The well will need to be capped off underwater. Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler said crews were prepared for the platform to sink and had the equipment at the site to limit the environmental damage.

Oil giant BP, which contracted the rig, said it has mobilised four aircraft that can spread chemicals to break up the oil and 32 vessels, including a big storage barge, that can suck more than 171,000 barrels of oil a day from the surface.

Crews searching for the missing workers, meanwhile, have covered the 3,120-km search area by air 12 times and by boat five times. The boats searched all night.

The family of Dewey Revette, 48, said he was also among the missing. He worked as a driller on the rig and had been with the company for 29 years.

“We’re all just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and hoping for good news. And praying about it,” said Revette’s 23-year-old daughter, Andrea Cochran.

Adrian Rose, vice-president of rig owner Transocean, said on Thursday some surviving workers said in company interviews that their missing colleagues may not have been able to evacuate in time. He said he was unable to confirm whether that was the case.

Those who escaped did so mainly by getting on lifeboats that were lowered into the gulf, Mr. Rose said. Weekly emergency drills seemed to help, he said, adding that workers apparently stuck together as they fled the devastating blast.

“There are a number of uncorroborated stories, a lot of them really quite heroic stories of how people looked after each other. There was very little panic,” Mr. Rose said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Fernandez was the flight mechanic on a helicopter that was the first to respond, about 15 minutes after the explosion. Fernandez said he could see the fire from 130 km away, with flames rising about 500 feet.

“I was kind of expecting worse” in terms of fatalities, he said. But all the survivors already had made their way from the lifeboats into a supply boat. Mr. Fernandez and his crew plucked two critically injured survivors to a nearby rig that had a paramedic on board.

Family members of two missing workers filed separate lawsuits on Thursday accusing Transocean and BP of negligence. Both companies declined to comment about legal action against them after the first suit was filed.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates oil rigs, conducted three routine inspections of the Deepwater Horizon this year — in February, March and on April 1 — and found no violations, MMS spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard said a crew member from an oil platform that sank off Louisiana had reported an initial explosion three hours before the rig went up in flames in a second, larger explosion.

Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O’Berry said the first blast was reported at 7 pm CDT on Tuesday.

Later, the rig sent an emergency signal. Mr. O’Berry said a nearby rig at the same time reported the Deepwater Horizon was in flames.

He said the rig didn’t ask for help during the initial call. The Coast Guard sent help after the emergency signal came. The Coast Guard is investigating what happened during that three hours.

A spokesman for the rig owner said any logged events are part of the investigation.

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