Families of oil rig victims struggle with a devastating loss

The families have no rallying point: Each worker came from a different town. And while other recent tragedies had a collective moment of silence, the focus in the Gulf turned promptly to the leak.
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

EUNICE, LA. -- Keith Jones lingered outside the imposing doors of St. Anthony's Catholic Church debating whether to step into the memorial service inside. Earlier, back at the funeral home, Jones had introduced himself to the family of Blair Manuel, one of the 11 victims of the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico last month.

He had offered condolences, talked with everyone he wanted to talk with, and now just wanted to get on the road for his hour-and-a-half drive home to Baton Rouge. It was Jones's third memorial in two weeks, counting the one April 26 for Gordon, his 28-year-old son. It catches him anew every day -- that he has to learn to live without him.

It's unclear what caused the April 20 explosion 42 miles south of New Orleans. Witnesses describe a loud hiss of gas, a green flash and a fireball that burned for two days, consuming, and sinking, the massive drilling rig. Now the world is intensely watching the efforts to stop the spewing oil 5,000 feet below, the politicians debating why and the daily updates on environmental damage.

But in a string of towns that ring the gulf, where men leave home for weeks at a time to work good jobs with good benefits miles offshore, the families of the victims struggle, and not just with grief. Loved ones are trying to come to terms not just with lives lost, and no bodies to recover, but with what feels like the country's collective skipping from dead to gone. There was no national pause to honor the victims, like the one for the 29 West Virginia coal miners who died last month, though both miners and riggers work to fuel the country.

With oil still spilling, it seems the main focus is on the massive costs -- in terms of everything but the men who worked to bring it to the surface.

"I feel terrible for people who make their living on the coastline, but I also think sooner or later the oil will be cleaned up, the shrimp will be back, the oysters will be back, the beaches will be back," Jones said. "Gordon's not gonna be back."

Remembering Gordon

The 11 victims came from 11 different towns and worked for two different companies: Transocean, which owned the rig, lost nine workers and will hold a memorial service for all 11 May 25 in Jackson, Miss. M-I Swaco, the rig services company, lost two, Jones and Manuel. The Jones family was visited by Swaco representatives.

For these families, there is no centrality save the central fact that an explosion on an oil rig blew a hole through their lives. There's no single community to help carry all that grief, as in coal-mining towns. Some relatives want to talk about it, some are tired of talking, and some are too shaken or angry to do so. Or they've been advised by their lawyers not to say a word. Some, like Keith Jones, are starting to face the everydayness of their loss.

Mourners outside the visitation for Blair Manuel, 56, a father of three adult daughters who was engaged to be married in July, wore purple and gold ribbons to commemorate Manuel's love of Louisiana State University football. The Eunice native and former high school offensive guard had been a season ticket-holder.

He had been an avid outdoorsman, a hunter and fisherman, said his mother, Geneva Manuel. One of her son's friends walked up to greet her and her husband, L.D., and as they embraced both men teared up. "This has been going on all day," L.D. said. "All his friends, working people in the oil business," coming by to pay their respects.

As more than 100 mourners gathered at the church a few miles away, Keith Jones, who heads a law firm, sat in his SUV, remembering Gordon's memorial. His son never liked his nickname Gordo, short for Gordon, which he also didn't like. He'd been overweight until the last few months, when he lost 80 pounds by cutting back on the pizza and working out on the rig. He'd finally beaten his big brother, Chris, who'd always been a better athlete, in Baton Rouge's annual Fat Boy 5K in March, a point Chris made in his eulogy. Gordon and his wife were parents of a 2-year-old, Stafford, and Michelle just gave birth to their second son, Maxwell Gordon, on Friday.

"Did you know an oil rig worker in Europe is four times safer than one working in the U.S.?" asked Jones, citing a study reported in the Wall Street Journal. "I wish somebody had told me that before I got Gordon that job."

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