One minute it was a lake, dotted with barges, a tugboat and an oil-drilling rig. The next minute it was a roaring whirlpool as the barges, the boat and the rig were sucked into the earth like so many bits of soap going down the bathtub drain.
A fisherman who narrowly escaped with his life when a bizarre drilling accident sent Lake Peigneur flooding into the tunnels of an underground salt mine called it "the end of the world," and for seven men on a drilling rig and 50 men in a salt mine, it nearly was.
But no one was injured in the catastrophe, touched off Thursday morning when a Texaco Inc. rig drilling a few hundred yards west of the tiny island community of Jefferson Island at the edge of Lake Peigneur, accidentally punctured a salt dome. In minutes, the lake over the dome was transformed into a ravenous crater that even sucked up trees along the shore.
The crater then created a waterfall by sucking water from the Gulf of Mexico into the lake through the Delcambre Canal, which links the lake, Vermilion Bay and the Gulf.
Within three hours the water, the rig and all the vessels were gone. Live Oak Gardens, a major tourist attraction, went, and a 19th century home built by Joseph Jefferson, the actor best known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, is still in danger.
The crater, now about 40 acres, has been feeding off adjoining chunks of land and "will continue to grow," said Lynn M. Ligon, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor. The question today was whether the entire island might collapse into the earth. This marshy island is part of a massive outcropping of salt, and if the lake waters dissolve the subterranean salt pillars that support the top of the salt dome, the dome could go crashing inward.
Michael Dore, his brother, Timmy, and their uncle, Leonce Viator Jr., were fishing when the lake began to drain.
"I seen this wave coming by," Viator said, "and I told him [Timmy Dore], 'You'd better get out of here. The end of the world is coming' . . . but when I told him, we couldn't go anywhere.
"The wind was blowing, and everything seemed to go dry on the earth, and we were sitting on the mud."
After the initial wave, Viator said, a "whirlpool" appeared. "It looked like a tidal wave," he said. "Some people say it was 20 feet high. I wouldn't say it was that . . . that water was roaring. I ain't kidding you a bit."
Charles Groat, head of Louisana State Geological Survey, said a mistake in locating the rig may have led to the collapse. Texaco officials said they notifed the dome owners that the hole would be drilled and that the firm "failed to notify Texaco that salt mining operations had been conducted in the area."
In Washington, Sen. J. Bennett Johnson, (D-La.) asked the Energy Department to study the accident's implications for the $20 billion Strategic Petroleum Reserve program, and for the federal effort to use salt domes to store nuclear wastes.