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Families of oil rig victims struggle with a devastating loss

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; C01

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, MS. 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."

In all his grief, Jones feels a particular sadness for how little notice seems to have been given to the oil-rig dead. "The coal mine explosion -- all the attention was on the victims," he said. "The president went to visit. The president came down here and nobody ever even asked him a question about the victims."

Jones, 58, who drank for 21 years and has been sober for 19, said he went 25 years of his life without crying about anything. He broke his right arm and almost all the bones in his face in a 1983 car wreck and didn't cry. Then his marriage ended, family relationships got difficult, and when he did start to cry, Gordon was always there. His lip began to quiver. He heard about the explosion on the news and e-mailed his son: "I hear there's a fire on a rig. Just making sure it's not you."

Two days later, five company representatives came to tell the gathered family that Gordon had last been seen on the drill floor. He had been scheduled to start his shift later that night, but told another rig worker, "I've got this," go on up to bed. That worker came by the same day to say Gordon had saved his life.

Gordon always signed cards to his grandmother "your favorite grandson," Jones remembered. "What young man sends cards? But Gordon did." The best friend of Jones's mama told him, "For all these years, I don't think I ever heard Winnie say Gordon's name without saying 'my sweet Gordon,' not Gordon, but 'my sweet Gordon.' . . . It was like it was one word."

He grew quiet. "She's taking this hard."

The church doors opened and pallbearers came down the stairs carrying a heavy wooden box of Blair Manuel mementos, destined for the cemetery in lieu of remains.

'A family man'

Down the road from the Dixie Dandy gas and convenience store in Newellton, La., the parking lot to the elementary school was full. Assistant Police Chief Clarence Hall stood in the street directing traffic. He said the same thing, in the same words, that everyone who knew Donald Clark says: He was a good man, "a family man, a real good asset to the community. Any way he could help, he would."

"He was always gone to work or out there fishing," said Latrenna Cephus, 36, who knew Clark -- a 49-year-old assistant driller, married with four kids -- her whole life. "He was strictly a family man. . . . He had a good heart. He's gonna be real missed."

Sam Thomas, whose brother married Clark's sister, said he talked to him the day before he went back on the rig for the last time. "That day before, we had went fishing. He caught 30 perches." Every Thursday, Clark went bowling with his son. "He was a family man and a Christian. There wasn't nothing he wouldn't do for you."

At the service in the gym, a bluesy a cappella voice sang: If you just believe, you shall be saved, and nearly 700 people filled every chair on the floor and every spot in the bleachers. The sounds of the choir from the Pilgrim Baptist Church, which had driven 90 minutes from Natchez, filled the cavernous room, and as they sang "God is my everything," Clark's wife, Sheila, stood with her arms stretched high. "My everything!" she cried out as attendants stood near, ready to fan and comfort her.

"We're praying for all the families that lost their loved ones out on the ocean, Lord," a voice intoned.

A man with a British accent, identified in the program only as "Transocean Drilling Co.," told a story of being on board the rig and needing a man to climb with him to the top of a platform. "The group, all five or six looked at the floor, except Don, who said, 'Come on, let's go.' " As they sat 10 stories up, the official asked Clark what was important to him. "He spoke highly of his family," the official said. "He found it strange that I didn't fish, and didn't know how to fish." The gym filled with laughter. Clark was a highly respected man, he said. "He knew that rig better than any man."

With the mourners quiet, straining to hear, he continued. "It's rare to meet an individual with his charisma, his calm, his smiling attitude. You just don't meet people like that today."

Taking the podium, James Tate gathered himself, then said loudly, "Donald O'Neal Clark, that's my dad." He talked about how he and his mother and sister had been living in St. Louis, how he'd seen his mother "go through a lot of things" before she met Clark. How he was hesitant when he first met him and thought to himself, I've already got a dad. But then he saw how his mother's "frowns turned to smiles, how this man treated me. How he taught me things, like how to fish and mow the lawn and drive a stick shift." He started thinking, "Okay, I've got two dads."

"How do you comfort Sister Sheila when the body is not there and you can't reach the soul?" the pastor asked. Don Clark was one of the two best men the town had ever had, he said. "Hold onto the spirit of Don. That's what you hold onto, sister," the pastor said as people raised their hands and swayed.

'How special he really was'

Inside her Natchez, Miss., apartment, Patricia Hartley, 30, was overflowing with things to say about her brother-in-law, Karl Dale Kleppinger, 38, whom she has known since he and her sister Tracy moved in with her parents when Patricia was a child. She talked about how he stepped in to be a father to her two girls when her husband left. She talked out her memories until the phone rang, then said she couldn't say anything else until the family got together to decide if they were willing to talk, which was easy since she, her twin, Alicia Sudduth, her parents, Kathy and Robert "Butch" Sills, and Tracy and Karl all lived in the same apartment complex.

Later, her mother picked up the story, because they decided they want people to know about Karl -- "how special he really was," Kathy Sills said.

Karl and Tracy had lived with the Sillses or nearby for their entire 18-year marriage. Since shortly after Karl was away in Desert Storm and sent Tracy a Valentine's Day letter asking her to marry him. Tracy's sisters were married to men who worked on tugboats 30 days at a time, and Kleppinger was on the oil rig for three-week stretches. The whole family pitched in to help with the five kids.

Kleppinger made a "really good living," Sills said. "Seventy-five thousand dollars a year plus bonuses. And he made sure that all four families were taken care of. He just loved being with his wife and family." He never took vacations, but their apartment complex has tennis courts and a swimming pool he'd toss the kids into every summer. "They'll miss that this year," Sills said. "Oh, they loved their Uncle Karl."

Kleppinger had spent 10 years on oil rigs. He was a floor hand, working with pipes and "mud," the fluid needed to drill. Still, "he'd play Barbies on the floor with my granddaughters," Sills recalled. He bought her a computer two summers ago. She's disabled and he wanted her to have more interaction. He'd send her funny e-mails, "redneck or off-color. Of course, this was while he was eating my egg custard pies or chili burgers." That's partially how he picked up his weight. On his way home from the rig, "he'd drive two hours out of his way to buy his wife Krystal burgers."

He'd play the World of Warcraft computer game with his wife and son for hours. The night he left on his last hitch, his 8-year-old niece, Jade, wrapped herself around his leg. "Don't go, Uncle Karl," she'd told him. "He told me, 'I love you, Mom,' " Sills said.

A few days after they'd gotten the call that the search was suspended and he was probably dead, some co-workers brought his truck back home. The family didn't know it was coming. They heard the familiar rumble first. "Everybody started running," Sill said. "I have a power chair so I started wheeling it. That was that one little flicker. We knew it wasn't true, but something inside of each one of us just wanted it to be so." It was strangers who drove up in Karl's truck. "We all just fell apart after that."

An empty space

Saturday, 2 1/2 weeks after his son was killed and the day after the memorial for Blair Manuel, Keith Jones marked his one-year anniversary with Sandra. They sat in his old cracked, blue-leather chair and exchanged I love yous. They didn't celebrate. Just a quiet lunch with friends and a quiet dinner. They've renovated their house, with its beautiful high ceilings and their stone patio extends into a big corner-lot back yard, a perfect place for grandchildren and the brand new Maxwell Gordon.

A living-room table had pictures of flags at half-staff in front of the State Archives building, sitting next to a basket full of sympathy cards, with more in every day. Jones held a picture of Gordon, who looks a lot like his daddy. "He gets stuff from both sides," Jones said.

His memories of his son are still present tense.

As is the everydayness of grief.

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