Apparent suicide by fishing boat captain underlines oil spill's emotional toll
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Allen Kruse had been a charter fishing boat captain for more than two decades -- long enough that people called him by his boat's name, Rookie, as if they were one and the same. But then, two months ago, the leaking BP oil well began pouring crude into the waters where he took families fishing for snapper and amberjack.
Two weeks and two days ago, with his fishing grounds closed, Kruse, 55, took a job working for BP's cleanup crew. For the very people who'd caused the mess.
Other boat captains said Kruse, like them, found the effort confusing, overly bureaucratic and frustrating. He told them to keep their heads down, not to worry about the hassles. But those close to him saw he was losing weight.
On Wednesday morning, Kruse drove to his boat as usual. As the deckhands prepared for the day's work, Kruse, as the captain, was supposed to turn on the generator. But after a few minutes, the crew members said, they didn't hear anything and went looking for him. A deckhand found him in the wheelhouse, shot in the head.
The Baldwin County, Ala., coroner's office called his death an apparent suicide and said Kruse didn't leave a note. There's no way to be sure why he would have taken his life. But his friends see the tragedy as a clear sign of the BP spill's hidden psychological toll on the Gulf Coast, an awful feeling of helplessness that descends on people used to hard work and independence.
"We're helping cover up the lie. We're burying ourselves. We're helping them cover up the [expletive] that's putting us out of work," said a 27-year-old deckhand who was working for Kruse on Wednesday and spoke on condition of anonymity. He said Kruse was facing the same problems as others in his business: "It's just setting in with 'em, you know; reality's kicking in. And there's a lot of people that aren't as happy as they used to be."
Around the gulf, social service providers are dealing with a rising tide of mental health crises. Groups of Baptists are deploying extra chaplains in parishes along the coast. In southern Louisiana, where the impact was felt first, about 1,500 people have received counseling services from Catholic Charities.
From past disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, health experts say they expect a wave of physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. But they also expect more-subtle problems, as people absorb the spill's impact on their lives: depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic issues.
"We're seeing already an increase in suspiciousness, arguing, domestic violence. . . . We're already having reports of increased drinking, anxiety, anger and avoidance," Howard J. Osofsky of the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans said during a two-day hearing this week on the physical and emotional impact of the spill.
Michele Many, a social worker who helps fishermen's wives, said the stress of the spill is compounded by its uncertainty. Oil is still pouring out, spreading, with an unmanageable toxicity that evokes comparisons to disease.
"The oil spill is like a cancer or tumor," said Many, who works at Louisiana State University. "It is creeping and unpredictable from whether people will have livelihoods or health issues later from helping clean it up. You just don't know whether it is benign or malignant."
'No end in sight'
In Lafitte, La., 200 hundred miles from the marina where Kruse died, Claudia Helmer heard about the suicide Wednesday afternoon.