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Apparent suicide by fishing boat captain underlines oil spill's emotional toll

By Dana Hedgpeth and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; C01

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.

"Oh, Lord," she said. "That is really, really sad."

And she immediately began to fret about her fisherman husband, Gerry, and their 19-year-old son, who were spending five days on the Gulf, helping clean up oil.

"I do worry that my husband isn't one to show what he's feeling," she said. "He doesn't want me to worry, but I do. I think he's going to keep it all bundled up."

She sees the stress in those around her. "I was with a next-door neighbor [Tuesday], and he's a 42-year-old fisherman, and he just broke down crying," she said. "It was a shock to see him so upset. He's afraid we're not going to have anything left. We all are."

On Monday afternoon, Helmer chatted with a half-dozen other wives of fishermen as they sat in a crowded hall of a nearby Catholic church waiting for gift cards to a supermarket. Many agreed that their husbands -- some of whom weren't fishing and shrimping because the waters are closed, and others who are out helping to clean up oil -- are in need of counseling. But few thought that their men, raised in the self-sufficient lifestyle of the bayous, would actually seek it.

Tony Speier, assistant deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Mental Health, said that what makes the oil spill harder for people to deal with than, say, a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina is that "people don't know how long this is going to be."

"They can't put a psychological boundary on it and start their recovery because this is ongoing," he said.

At Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church in Grand Isle, La., the Rev. Mike Tran said he's getting more phone calls from worried fishermen and their wives. He's offering daily Masses and a support group for those trying to deal with the spill. Some parishioners have said they're drinking more and have little energy -- signs of possible depression.

"This is really taking a toll on people," Tran said. "It's devastating because it is dragging out. There seems to be no end in sight."

Some in Louisiana were just getting their businesses back on their feet or moving back into rebuilt houses five years after Katrina.

Lorrie Grimaldi, her husband, Lance Melerine, and two young daughters recently moved before the spill into a new brick home after years of living in a FEMA-issued trailer and with family members after Katrina.

Now she's worried about how much her husband, who's trying to do some shrimping in waters that are open, will make this season. Her doctor put her on medication to help deal with her anxiety and the onset of depression.

"If his boat isn't out, then we're not making money," said Grimaldi, 33. She said she and her husband rarely fought but now are snappy with each other and their kids.

"My daughter asks him, 'Daddy, what's wrong?' " she said. "He'll just tell her, 'Don't worry about me. I'm supposed to worry about you.' " She said her husband used to sit up and talk with her and watch TV until midnight but now eats his dinner and goes to bed as soon as he gets home. "He's sad, baby," she tells her 9-year-old daughter, Laken.

'Just like prison'

Kruse died at a marina in Gulf Shores, Ala., more than 200 miles from the Louisiana towns that felt the spill's impact first.

As time passed, the oil spread toward the waters off Alabama, where Kruse used to take families out from 15 to 30 miles. Like most charter boat captains, who need to deliver a good time even when the fish don't cooperate, he was as much entertainer as fisherman. Friends said Kruse would let little kids drive the boat and chat up the parents.

"Fishing was second. Fun was first," the deckhand said.

But Thad Stewart, a friend who works at the Orange Beach, Ala., marina where Kruse docked his boat, said he noticed a difference about the time Kruse went to work for BP. "He stopped talking. That's all there is to it. He stopped talking," Stewart said. "I'm not saying that this was the cause of it . . . but he was seeing what was his home, which was the Gulf of Mexico, just be slowly destroyed."

Frank Kruse, his identical twin brother who is a probate lawyer in Mobile, Ala., said his brother was waiting for about $70,000 in payments from BP for working two of his boats for the past two weeks. "There's no question in my mind that this is directly related to the oil spill," Frank Kruse said in a phone interview Wednesday night. "He had been losing weight. Every day he was worried."

He said his brother "was very, very upset at the way BP was handling the oil spill. There was a lot of wasted money, a lot of wasted time. They'd give him a different story of what needed to be done."

Frank said he had talked to one of Kruse's captains the night before, who told him he should talk to his brother. "Before I could call him, one of his captains appeared at my door," he said.

Tom Ard, another fishing boat captain, knew Kruse for 25 years.

"I could tell he was having a hard time coping," said Ard, president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association. Kruse was on its board of directors.

Ard said BP has done everything it said it would do and that despite setbacks and delays, "they have been working hard to make things right."

But Ard said Kruse "was just very stressed out. He was worried about getting paid from BP, about our livelihoods being taken out from under us. He was one of the top boats in this community. Everybody really looked up to him. It's just a terrible loss, and it has really floored this whole community.

"This would not have happened if it weren't for this oil spill," Ard said. "Our livelihood has been pulled out from under us. We're fishermen. Everything we got we built ourselves with our own hands. All of a sudden, we're not in control of anything."

In Kruse's world, a lot of people were down. There were fights with wives, troubles over money and impending bills. Charter fishermen say they were glad they could make some money working for BP. But they were annoyed by the petty bureaucracy of it: the paperwork, the inane training in avoiding sunburns and wearing life jackets and tennis shoes instead of flip-flops, the runaround when somebody had a question.

Other fishermen, who looked up to Kruse as a veteran captain, turned to him for advice.

"His quote to me was, 'Don't try to rationalize it. . . . Just sign your name and get on your boat, and don't try to tell anybody how to run the program, and don't try to tell 'em what the local knowledge is,' " Capt. Chris Garner said. The point was: The cleanup is hopeless, and you'll just tire yourself out trying to improve the situation. "I said, 'Rookie, that sounds an awful lot like prison,' " meaning the loss of control, Garner said Wednesday. "He said, 'That's a pretty good analysis, Chris. It's just like prison.' And he didn't make it another week."

Staff writer Rob Stein and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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