Gulf towns pray for news from Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion

Roughneck towns along the Gulf coast are waiting for news from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Eleven people are missing, although one family received a happy call.

Gerald Herbert/AP
In this aerial photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion brought fire-fighting boats to the scene.

In the roughneck communities of coastal Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, families gathered and prayed Wednesday amid conflicting news reports about the plight of 11 oil rig workers missing after the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion Tuesday night.

Dora Ezell prayed, too, although hers had already been answered. Her husband, Miles Richard Ezell, a career rig worker on the state-of-the-art deepwater drilling platform, had earlier in the day been listed among the missing, but had been located in good shape.

"Definitely people need prayers," says Ms. Ezell, reached at her Hattiesburg, Miss., home on Wednesday. "The rig has received excellence awards, so I don't know what could have happened. It's always been a very, very safe environment. I just thank God I have a husband."

The small bayou towns of America's oil belt have a precarious relationship with the oil fields. Jobs ranging from roustabouts to roughnecks, galley hands to mud hands offer a lot of money, often for people with high school degrees or less. The rewards and time off is great, but the danger is always in the background, says Lafayette, La., lawyer Rusty Galloway, a former rig worker.

"They come from small towns where the oil field is their life," says Mr. Galloway. "The fears that these people have, it's life and death out there. You risk your life for a lot of money."

The first news was wrong

News from officials in Plaquemines Parish first indicated that a lifeboat had been sighted after the 10 p.m. Tuesday explosion and then that the 11 workers were "safe and sound." But the Coast Guard quickly dismissed that report, indicating that they'd neither heard of a lifeboat nor located the 11 missing crew members. The confusion could have come about from a missing or partial crew manifest, says Galloway.

Coast Guard crews in cutters, helicopters, and an airplane expanded their search cordon Wednesday as they remained "optimistic that we can find them," as Petty Officer Mike Blakney told the Los Angeles Times.

But at a press conference later in the day, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said, "We have no idea where the 11 unaccounted-for personnel are."

The majority of the rig workers are veteran third-party contractors while 26 are directly employed by Houston-based Transocean, which built and owns the rig. Six others are employed by BP, which is leasing the rig at about $500,000 a day to explore oil deposits lying as deep as 30,000 feet below the Gulf's floor.

Drilling miles below the Gulf floor

The crew had been involved in some of the most dramatic drilling ever done. The Deepwater Horizon last year broke the world record drill depth of 32,000 feet as it uncovered vast new oil reserves in an area known as Tiber.

"The new technology on this rig is state of the art, and they don't let a bunch of rookies operate this equipment," says Jorge Pinon, former president of Amoco Latin America. "These are experienced professionals who know what they're doing."

Much of rig work is "hurry up and wait," Galloway says, but "things also happen fast when you're working offshore."

It's not yet clear what caused the explosion. The fire is apparently burning on-board fuel, but has proved stubborn. Along with rescuers, teams of environmental disaster experts are also on scene, although the damage isn't expected to be widespread.

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