Oil riggers on ship that exploded in Gulf of Mexico describe fateful night

A crew from the ship the Damon B. Bankston was supplying the oil rig when the explosion occurred and took survivors aboard.
A crew from the ship the Damon B. Bankston was supplying the oil rig when the explosion occurred and took survivors aboard. (Courtesy Of Tidewater Marine)
By Eli Saslow and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

BELLE CHASSE, LA. -- Before the explosion, the oil spill, the declarations of "environmental crisis" or the emergency visit by President Obama, 126 oil riggers were passing another quiet night on the Gulf of Mexico. The skies were clear and the seas calm on April 20. Boredom and loneliness were the primary concerns.

Matt Hughes lifted weights in the gym before his midnight shift. Kevin Eugene laid down on his queen-size bed and turned on ESPN, thinking television might make him feel closer to land. Other men watched action movies in the theater or played poker in the lounge. They called the Deepwater Horizon their "floatel" because the rig was a world unto itself: an isolated tower on 5,000-foot-deep seas, with only scratchy satellite phones and the occasional helicopter to bridge the 50 miles to Louisiana shores.

Wyman Wheeler, a 39-year-old oilman, was busy packing. He was 20 days into a 21-day hitch, scheduled to fly back to Houma, La., by helicopter at 6 a.m. and then drive four hours to his home in Mississippi. Like most of the men, he worked on the rig for 21 days at a time, enduring 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, so he could spend the next 21 days at home. He called his wife, Rebecca, and spoke to their two young children. "One more night," he said. Then he promised them a vacation to Texas that week.

Wheeler hung up the phone, changed into his coveralls and walked out of his room. He had been working offshore for 16 years, and the last night of a hitch still left him too excited to sleep. He walked down the hall toward the tool room, then stopped. The hall reeked of gasoline. The lights flickered. Popping sounds echoed from overhead. All of a sudden, the door to the tool room seemed to be breathing, as though someone were pushing on it from the other side.

What happened next would be the last thing Wheeler remembered: The door blew off its hinges and barreled toward him, even before he heard an explosion.

* * *

In the weeks that followed, dozens of scientists would analyze the evidence and debate the damage. They would conclude that a gigantic blast of gas, oil and mud had roared up from the drilling zone below, bursting through the floor of the Deepwater Horizon and sparking a historic fire. Coast Guard rescuers who survived Hurricane Katrina would call it an extraordinary disaster. Experts would fly in and determine that oil was leaking into the gulf at the rate of 210,000 gallons per day, threatening wildlife, fisheries and coastline across the southeastern United States.

It would be two weeks before many of the men at the epicenter of the disaster felt ready to talk about it. And when they did, they would describe the first moments simply in the terms of sensory terror: two deafening thuds, followed by chaos and confusion.

Eugene, who had been drifting to sleep to ESPN, rushed out of bed in his underwear and a T-shirt. He was a cook working for a catering company, not an oilman, and strange noises had always made him nervous. He reached into a closet for his life vest and hard hat -- a habit instilled by the rig's weekly fire drills -- and ran out the door without socks or shoes. A shrill alarm rang over the loudspeakers, followed by an announcement for the 126 men to make their way to Lifeboats 1 and 2, the sole ones that remained intact after the initial explosion.

Only when Eugene ran upstairs did the extent of the disaster become clear. The deck, once as large as two football fields, now measured three-quarters of its original size, and some of it was on fire. Pieces of machinery were raining down from the derrick, 200 feet overhead. More than 100 men had crowded against a railing near the lifeboats -- the only solid ground. Smoke billowed above. Flames grew nearby. The dark ocean waited 80 feet below. Explosions shook the rig every few minutes, spilling men and equipment across the deck.

"We're waiting to get everyone here before we go!" a supervisor yelled to Eugene and the other men who were waiting near the lifeboats. Three minutes went by. Five. Seven. "This whole thing is going to explode," Eugene said, terrified. He looked down to the ocean, his eyes measuring the 80 feet. The lifeboats were supposed to be lowered to the water by automatic pulleys. He wondered whether the pulleys remained intact. He wondered whether the next explosion would be his last.

Nearby, Matt Hughes gripped the railing to help steady his balance. The 26-year-old from Malvern, Ark., was still in his weightlifting clothes, with a life preserver now covering his T-shirt. He watched his co-workers idling by the lifeboats and thought: We are going to die waiting.

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