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

By Eli Saslow and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; A01

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.

The flames acted like a torch to light up the ocean. Hughes looked down at the water. The seas were calm. "Screw it," he thought. He would jump.

He had always been a good swimmer, and now he put a wad of Copenhagen chewing tobacco in his mouth to steel his nerve. As he climbed up the railing, he slipped and cut his foot. He reached the top and looked down one more time, still hanging on. Clear the rig and land feet first, he thought. He held his breath and let go.

* * *

Captain Alwin J. Landry looked across the ocean at the flaming rig and saw a sudden flash of reflective gear dropping from the sky. He followed the shape to its splash in the water, wondering what it was, and saw a person bobbing in the sea. Soon there were more jumpers -- three, four, five.

Landry, 41, had been servicing the rig on a typical "grocery run," using his ship, the Damon B. Bankston, to deliver supplies. He had been about to begin the long journey back to shore when, at 9:53 p.m., he heard an explosion and then saw a blinding green light. Suddenly Landry was directing his crew to fish men out of the water, remembering an old bit of advice from his father, a volunteer firefighter: Be calm and give concise directions. But his father had never seen fire like this.

At the same time, an emergency call was sent to a private air-ambulance service and two Coast Guard stations. "This is the real deal," the flight dispatcher told Raymond Mouton, 42, a flight paramedic at Acadian air med. Mouton and his colleagues stuffed the helicopters with blankets, bandages, backboards and collars to immobilize broken necks.

Acadian's helicopter, painted with a fleur-de-lis flag, took off from Houma, at the edge of south Louisiana's vast marshes. Four other helicopters and one airplane flew over the gulf toward the wreck, pushing top speed. The rescuers flew in darkness, over uninhabited swamps. Forty miles away from the rig, they saw an orange glow flickering on the water that looked to one rescuer like a distant city skyline. Soon it was clearly a fire. Then, five miles out, it was an awe-inspiring blaze with flames burning 300 feet into the air and spreading across the water.

One mile from the wreck, Coast Guard Lt. Andy Greenwood put his hand against his window. It was hot.

Before the choppers arrived, the survivors started to make their way to Landry's supply ship, which was nearly as long as a football field. Hughes, the jumper, swam almost a quarter of a mile to the boat, arriving with a bruised chest, numb toes and tobacco still tucked securely behind his lip. Eugene, the cook, arrived in one of the lifeboats, which had finally descended to the water almost 20 minutes after the initial explosion. Wheeler, who had been hit by the flying door, also arrived in the boat. He had been carried to safety by two other oilmen who had found him unconscious and with a broken leg, dislocated shoulder and burns on the back of his tattered coveralls.

The survivors boarded the ship using ladders, and some were carried on by Coast Guard rescue swimmers. Less than an hour after the explosion, the oilmen on the Damon B. Bankston lined up for a headcount. Some had compact fractures or cuts to the head; others would later be wrapped in blankets and lifted into helicopters destined for hospitals. Rig managers marked the men off one by one as they counted, using a manifest to add the total: 115. They counted again. One hundred fifteen.

Eleven were missing.

The ship was quiet. The survivors borrowed clothes from men on Landry's crew, and Landry's cook made them a buffet of fried pork chops, hamburgers, red beans and hot dogs. Outside, helicopters buzzed around the burning rig as rescue crews used night-vision goggles to look for survivors in a square-mile swath of debris. The rescuers found barrels, mangled pipes, chunks of wood, foam insulation and empty lifeboats, which had now caught fire. But no other men.

Not until the next afternoon did Landry receive orders to leave the scene and take the survivors to shore. The search was still continuing, but the oilmen onboard the Damon B. Bankston had reached their own conclusion. They now numbered 115. They watched as their floatel became a twisted, inflamed spire sinking into the ocean at a 45-degree angle. It was time to go home.

Their disaster was over. But in the darkening water beneath them, another had already begun.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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