11 missing in huge oil rig explosion off La. coast

17 injured; fire still burns as rescuers search

By Campbell Robertson
New York Times / April 22, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — An explosion on an oil-drilling rig off the coast of southeast Louisiana left at least three people critically injured and 11 others missing on last night.

Rescue teams were searching the area in the Gulf of Mexico by helicopter, plane, and boat, US Coast Guard officials said.

“We have no idea where the 11 unaccounted-for personnel are at this time,’’ Rear Admiral Mary Landry, commander of the Coast Guard’s Eighth District, said at a press conference.

The explosion occurred Tuesday night, and yesterday afternoon crews were still fighting the fire, which was largely contained to the rig.

In photographs provided by the Coast Guard, the fire appeared to be shooting enormous plumes of flame into the air. Landry estimated that 13,000 gallons of crude were pouring out per hour.

Officials said the pollution was considered minimal so far because most of the oil was being consumed in the fire. “But that does have the potential to change,’’ said David Rainey, the vice president in charge of Gulf of Mexico exploration for British Petroleum, which is leasing the rig.

Seven oil-spill response vessels were en route to forestall any spreading of the oil in the ocean, Rainey said.

The rig was taking on water from the firefighting efforts, causing it to list up to 10 degrees, but company officials said they did not expect it to collapse. Firefighting crews intended to use a remote-controlled vehicle to plug the well and cut off the fuel for the fire, but it is unclear how long such an operation would take.

Seventeen crew members were injured, three of them critically, and were taken to hospitals in the region, said Adrian Rose, an executive for Transocean, the company that owns the rig.

The injuries included burns, smoke inhalation, and broken legs. At least eight people were treated and released from hospitals.

It was unclear what caused the explosion.

“We’ve had hurricanes and fires on the rigs, but I can’t remember that we ever had this type of explosion and definitely not on this type of rig,’’ said Billy Nungesser, the president of nearby Plaquemines Parish, where many oil rig workers live. “This is one of the largest, deep water, offshore drilling rigs.’’

Officials from the Minerals Management Service, a bureau of the Department of Interior, were assembling an investigation team and planned to interview crew members who were unscathed or who sustained only minor injuries, said Deputy Secretary David Hayes of the US Department of the Interior. Those workers were being transported to Port Fourchon last night.

Hayes said that the Minerals Management Service had performed three inspections of the rig this year, including one in the past month, and found no cause for concern.

The explosion occurred at about 10 p.m. Central time Tuesday, and came without warning, Rose said.

“This would have happened very, very rapidly,’’ he said.

Most of the 126-person crew was able to evacuate onto life boats; some were picked up by other offshore vessels in the area. Most of the crew worked for Transocean, though a small team of Transocean and BP executives had flown out to the rig Tuesday. Officials said about 40 of the people on the rig worked for different companies.

The oil drilling rig, called Deepwater Horizon, is positioned about 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., in water nearly 5,000 feet deep.

Transocean, a Houston-based company, said the rig, one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world, has been under contract to BP since September 2007.

It is a drilling rig and was not producing any oil. The rig had drilled a well in the sea floor and was in one of the last phases of the operation, building a cement casing to reinforce the well.

That can be a delicate phase, given the potential for an uncontrolled gas release that could lead to what is called a blowout. Rose said it was too early to say that this is what happened, but that it was a possibility.

The Deepwater Horizon can operate in water up to 8,000 feet deep, according to Transocean’s website. It is 396 feet long and 256 feet wide and was built in 2001 by Hyundai Heavy Industries Shipyard in South Korea.

“It’s been generating substantial day rates, in the neighborhood of $500,000 a day,’’ said Greg Panagos, a spokesman for Transocean.

Local officials had said earlier yesterday that the missing crew workers had been found. But that report, along with one that they had been seen at one point in a life raft that had since been lost, turned out to be untrue.

“I’ve been an analyst since 1999, and I can’t recall another incident like this one,’’ said Robert MacKenzie, managing director of FBR Capital Markets. “There are rigs that burn down, but it’s usually during the drilling process and not when the rig is close to finishing the well.’’