Lost in the catastrophic aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is the gripping tale of the rig workers and the Coast Guard crewmen who rescued them.
Countdown to Disaster
From the pasturelands outside a little Mississippi town called Liberty, Shane Roshto steers his pickup truck toward Houma, Louisiana, a bit more than four hours to the south. He’ll sleep in his truck tonight, Tuesday, March 30, in the parking lot at the heliport off Highway 24, and get up at dawn to meet the chopper that will fly him out to the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig floating over a mile-deep canyon in the Gulf of Mexico.
Shane has been working on the Horizon for almost four years now, ever since he got Natalie pregnant. He fell in love with her the night they met, just before Christmas break in ’04, when they were juniors in high school, and Natalie fell in love with him, too. Her daddy just about died when he found out she was pregnant, but Shane didn’t flinch. “Well,” he told Natalie, “I guess it’s about time I grew up.” He quit his classes at the community college and signed up with Transocean, a Swiss company that drills oil and gas wells in waters all over the planet.
His first hitch on the Horizon was in August ’06, two weeks as a seaman, bottom of the pecking order. He marched up to the drilling manager, stuck out his hand, and said, “I’m Shane Roshto, and I’ve got my eye on one of your jobs.” Ballsy. He left for two weeks—Transocean worked its crews fourteen days on and fourteen off back then—and returned as a roustabout, a common laborer but better than a seaman. He made roughneck a year later, and he figured another two, maybe three hitches, he might make the subsea crew, maintaining the blowout preventer and the pipes that run to the ocean floor, as well as almost everything else below the waterline. Backbreaking work, but it paid better than roughneck, and roughnecking wore a man out just as fast. “The oil field gave me life,” he’d tease Natalie sometimes, “but it’s gonna take my life, too.”
And Shane’s got a good life now. He married Natalie when she was eight months pregnant, in December ’06, and their boy, Blaine, turned 3 back in February. His job puts a roof over their heads and food on the table and, when he pulled an extra two weeks at sea last year, a pile of presents under the Christmas tree. And it’s good work, proud work. Shane calls himself oil-field trash, but he smiles when he says it. The rig he’s on is a wondrous machine, a semisubmersible drill poking holes through seabeds at unfathomable depths, tapping oil and gas deposits thought to be unreachable only a few years back. When the Horizon hit a world record, 35,050 feet, in the Gulf last September, Natalie could practically see his head swell. The only downside is the schedule—all those long stretches away from his wife and son, especially after Transocean switched to three-week rotations last fall. “This paycheck better bring me home,” he’d tell his buddies on the rig. And it always did.
At 6 a.m. on the last day of March, the helicopter ferries Shane out to sea. His shift on the drill floor will start at midnight and last until noon, and he’ll work twelve hours every day until his hitch is up.
Freddy Demolle is in his boat, a twentytwo-footer tethered to one of the platforms not too far out into the Gulf, his face shaded by a ball cap that has jesus is my boss stitched across the front. He’s 63 years old, and he’s been fishing or shrimping or crabbing for a living his whole life. Now he’s after sheepshead, which have come into the shallower waters to spawn, and they’re schooling around the rig pilings, feeding on barnacles and the shrimp Freddy’s stabbing onto the hook of his cane pole. He’s pulling them out as fast as he can set bait. If they keep biting, he’ll motor back to Venice with a ton of fish, maybe more, and he’ll sell them at the dock for forty cents a pound. If the fish quit taking his shrimp, Freddy will untie his boat and move to another rig and then another until he finds one where the sheepshead are biting. There are upwards of 4,000 platforms in the Gulf, some abandoned and most way farther out than Freddy’s willing to take his little boat, and each is like a little reef that draws crustaceans and baitfish that draw the bigger fish. Oil rigs make for good fishing, and it’s been that way ever since Freddy can remember.
And if there’s a bad season, the oil companies are usually hiring. Been that way for decades, too. In the river parishes of southern Louisiana, the money jobs are fishing and oil, and it’s neither hard nor unusual to drift between the two. Freddy was a roustabout for a few years in the ’90s, and last winter he drove a crew boat, hauling men and supplies. Sometimes when he’s fishing under the rigs now, the alarms will give him a start—”They go off and you don’t know what it is”—but never for long. Freddy knows rigs, and he knows alarms are forever ringing and beeping and hardly ever for anything serious, but rather so no problem becomes serious.
Forty miles north across swamp and marsh, Johnny Schneider’s got three boats in the water. Two are running crab traps, 350 of them, and the third is dragging Johnny’s oyster lease in Skiff Lake. The oyster boat’s new. Johnny built her himself, figures he’s got eighty grand in her. He calls her Problem Child, and no, it’s not for any one of his three kids, even the 9-month-old. “Hell, it’s for all three of them,” Johnny says, and then he laughs, raspy and low.
The fishing’s good this year. Johnny has new rakes, like oversize metal combs, tied to the back of the Problem Child, and they dig the oysters out of their bed and onto the deck, where they’re stuffed in one-hundredpound baskets. In the first nine days working Skiff Lake, he’ll come back with ninety, ninety-five baskets each evening, $21,000 worth of mollusks all told. He’s still got four more leases to work, too, and the money season for crabs—May, June, and July—is only a few weeks away. Those three months should be good for another eighty grand.
Johnny’s been fishing full-time since 1992, when he was 18. At 36, it’s all he knows how to do. He’d worried maybe Katrina wiped the fish away, the way it wrecked his whole damn parish. After the waters receded, he went back to his place in Poydras and gutted his trailer and tied the refrigerator to the hitch on his truck so he could drag it out the door, and by the middle of October he was back on the water. Seemed like he had the entire ocean to himself, and all the fish, too. It wasn’t easy trying to find someone to sell his catch to, but it all worked out.
Hurricanes are an existential threat, unpredictable and vicious, and there’s absolutely nothing Johnny can do about them except clean up and rebuild and go back to work. The market can also be unpredictable, which is why Johnny quit fishing mullet a few years back, when the price dropped to forty cents. But he does not worry about the oil platforms or the forty-five drilling rigs on the edge of his fishing grounds. They’ve been there all his life, sucking oil and gas out of the ocean floor, and they haven’t been a problem yet, not a major one. “I figure,” Johnny says, “that they got their shit down pat.”
The Deepwater Horizon is floating above a mile of green sea, holding an exact position against the currents and the waves. She’s enormous, 396 feet long and 256 wide, about the size and shape of a city block, with the steel bones of a derrick rising twenty stories up from her center. Seventy feet below the waterline, eight thrusters keep her in place above the wellhead, nudging the Horizon fore and aft and port and starboard, and her crew—she has berths for 130—can keep working when she’s riding waves almost thirty feet high. She’s drilling a well called Macondo at an extreme depth, but nowhere close to her limits: The Horizon can drop a drill in 8,000 feet of water and push it another 30,000 into the earth’s crust, changing direction on the way if needed, and hit a target no bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle.
Deep-sea drilling is a risky and complicated process, of course—the oil industry’s equivalent of a moon shot—and it’s vulnerable to all sorts of delays. Subterranean textures shift and soft layers collapse and gas from punctured pockets surges up the bore. Macondo has been particularly troublesome. Drilling the well and preparing it for a production rig was scheduled to take twenty-one days, but by the time Mike Williams helicopters to the Horizon on Monday, April 12, the job is into its fifth week. British Petroleum, which is leasing the rig from Transocean for $502,000 a day, is already $5 million over budget on rent alone; Mike hears the project as a whole might be as much as $150 million in the red.
Mike is 38 years old and a chief electronics technician on the Horizon, which means he monitors certain systems on the rig, makes sure the ventilation and the computer network and the gas sensors function properly. He used to manage the truck division at a Toyota dealership in Tyler, Texas, but the hours were brutal, working seven days every week, never seeing his wife, Felicia. He had a friend working offshore, and that was how Mike got on the rigs. “The good ol’ boy network,” he says. He’s been on the Horizon now for almost two years.
The problems with Macondo started on his last hitch, about two weeks into the job. Twice drilling had to stop—oilmen call it getting stuck—once to patch a crack in the bore hole, then again to drop a cement plug into a tender spot in the subsurface that collapsed around the drill string, the miles of pipe attached to the drill bit. All told, the Horizon lost at least ten expensive days. And no one gets a completion bonus when a well comes in late.
Mike senses the crew is frustrated but still determined, muscling through the final days of a job gone wrong. The well’s been drilled almost to depth, 18,000 feet, and then all that will be left is sealing it off until a production rig starts pumping out the oil and gas. Another ten days and the Horizon will move on to another site. And the news on the rig isn’t all bad. Next week, ecutives from BP are flying out to congratulate the crew for its safety record. In seven years, it hasn’t lost even an hour of operating time because someone got hurt.
The Deepwater Horizon has respectably comfortable rooms for the 126 crew on board, Internet access, a movie theater, laundry service, and a galley that serves far better food than one would expect for institutional cooking forty-five miles at sea. Not as good as Natalie Roshto’s—the first thing Shane will ask her when he gets home is the same thing he always asks, which is What’s for dinner?—but still pretty good. All in all, the rig’s not a bad place to be cooped up for three weeks at a stretch. “Like a big ol’ hotel,” the steward says.
Except Shane doesn’t like to be cooped up anywhere. He doesn’t watch enough television to say he has a favorite show, unless he counted Bob the Builder or Elmo’s World or whatever Blaine likes at the moment. Shane would rather be outside, driving his fatherin-law’s tractor or riding a horse or bouncing through the mud on a four-wheeler. Mostly he likes to hunt, and if he can’t hunt, he’ll fish, and mostly he does those things with Natalie. He gave her a deer stand as a wedding gift because that’s what she wanted, and the day after they said their vows, when Natalie was eight months pregnant, she sat in that stand until she put a clean round into a five-point buck.
Two weeks at sea, and he’s getting homesick. It’s a macho environment, too, and that gets to him after a while. (Natalie and some of the other wives used to joke that the rig ought to let a couple of them on once in a while to draw down some of that renegade testosterone.) On his hard hat, under the brim, Shane’s written two dates, his anniversary and Blaine’s birthday. Whenever I’m having one of THOSE days, he wrote on his MySpace page, where nothing is going right and I just want to choke slam someone, all I have to do is look at those two dates and remember that whatever I do out here impacts my two angels more than anyone and that I never want them to have to go without anything at all.…
His crew has rotated to the noon-to-midnight shift, so Shane’s still awake in the early morning hours. At 2:01 a.m. on April 15, he logs onto MySpace. Chillin out on the rig, he types. Missin Nat and Blaine.…
Ten hours later, Natalie— Mrs. R —types back. We miss you! I love you
A jointed tube twenty-one inches in diameter and roughly 5,000 feet long runs from the underside of the Horizon‘s derrick to a massive yellow contraption on the bottom of the Gulf. The tube is called a riser, and the yellow thing, a stack of valves and shearing rams four stories tall, is called a blowout preventer, or BOP. The BOP, which sits directly on top of the wellhead, is the barrier of last resort. If the oil and gas far below and under tremendous pressure gush unexpectedly upward—that is, if the well blows out—the BOP is supposed to slam shut and keep all the hydrocarbons safely contained.
Below the BOP is another tube, heavier and quite sturdy, called a casing, a smoothbore cylinder that lines the rough cavity hollowed out by the drill. As part of completing the well, a crew from Halliburton, subcontracted to the Horizon, has pumped a special cement through those miles of tubing to the bottom, where it oozed out and rose up the outside of the casing, sealing the gap between it and the surrounding earth. Then a cement plug was set at the bottom of the casing, which is filled with drilling mud, erting enough downward pressure to overwhelm the upward force of the punctured oil deposit. To complete the job, at least one more cement plug is supposed to be placed near the top of the casing, strengthening the seal.
By eleven o’clock, when the daily safety meeting begins, the cement has been curing for more than eleven hours. Mike Williams listens as the managers and supervisors outline their plans for the next twelve hours. Then it gets tense. Jimmy Wayne Harrell, Transocean’s OIM—offshore installation manager—goes last, like he always does. Mike finds it strange that Jimmy is using more technical language than usual when he’s talking about sealing the well.
“Jimmy,” the man sitting next to Mike says, “my procedure is different than that.”
Mike recognizes BP’s senior man on the Horizon.
“This is how we’re gonna do it,” the OIM says, “unless I hear different.”
The BP man says: “I’m the company man. And you’re hearing it from me.”
The two senior guys on the rig arguing about how a vessel with 126 crew on board is going to safely disconnect from a punctured reservoir of explosive hydrocarbons…yeah, tense is the right word.
The driller, Dewey Revette, breaks in, tries to ease the moment: “You know, guys, why don’t we work this out on the drill floor? Let’s go to work.”
Engineers run a routine, albeit critical, pressure check on the partially sealed Macondo well. The results are either unsatisfactory or inconclusive, depending on who will interpret the results later, but in any case, the results are not good. Worst case, they suggest methane is somehow leaking into the casing beneath the wellhead.
In order to set the final cement plug more quickly, workers on the Horizon begin displacing drilling mud in the casing and riser with seawater. This particular mud, which isn’t actually mud but a viscous cocktail of clay and chemicals that lubricates the drill and brings the cuttings to the surface, weighs twice as much as water. So removing it means the weight pressing down on the well has been halved, amplifying any risk of a blowout if the cement job or earlier plugs aren’t holding on their own. BP will later say additional tests were conducted after the earlier inconclusive results. However, no record of those later checks will survive.
Mike Williams is in his shop, center aft of the Horizon, directly above the diesel behemoths that power the vessel’s electrical systems. There are six of them, 10,000 horsepower each, though only two are running at the moment.
Mike’s on the phone with Felicia. Yesterday was their anniversary, thirteen years. Over the phone, Felicia hears a voice on the loudspeaker announce a spike in the methane level. She asks Mike if he has to go. He says no. Methane alarms sound at twenty-five parts per million, and they’re so common that he’s almost immune to them. Gas goes up, and hot work—grinding, welding, smoking—stops. Gas clears, work starts. Routine.
The cement around the casing is failing, possibly.
The cement plugs are failing, possibly.
The blowout preventer is going to fail, certainly.
Drilling mud rains down on the Damon B. Bankston, a 260-foot service boat tethered to the Horizon. She’s been there all day, and for the past four hours she’s been waiting for the Horizon to deliver 1,400 barrels—58,800 gallons—of drilling mud into her holds, on top of the 3,100 she took on earlier.
Captain Alwin Landry and his crew close the Bankston‘s hatches to keep mud out. Landry isn’t particularly worried. He’s worked crew boats for twenty-three years, been captain for a dozen, and he’s seen the evolution of oil-rig safety up close. He knows it looks dangerous, but he also knows all the procedures, the fail-safes and redundancies. Still, mud shouldn’t be speckling his boat.
Landry radios the Horizon, asks why his deck is slicking with goo. He’s told there’s a problem with the well, and he hears worry in the words.
Then another voice comes on the radio. Landry is told to move the Bankston, to stage his boat 500 meters away.
Captain Landry, still disconnecting from the Horizon, hears a loud hiss, the sound of escaping gas.
Mike Williams hears the engines below his shop begin to speed up, feeding on the leaking methane. Alarms are chirping, frenzied, a maniacal beep beep beep beep beep.
The lights in Mike’s office brighten.
The engines race.
The lights burst.
Mike pushes back from his desk. His computer monitor explodes.
He reaches for the handle on the door, which is steel and three inches thick and bolted to the frame by six stainless hinges.
From the bridge of the Bankston, Landry sees a green flash. He notes the time in his log as 21:53, seven minutes to ten.
The Ocean on Fire
The door to Mike’s shop blows in, throws him across the room, slams him against the far wall.
On the drill floor, Shane Roshto is about to die. So are Dewey Revette and nine other men.
Mike Williams, dazed and battered against the back wall of his shop, shoves his blown-out door out of the way. His left elbow’s hurt bad, and his leg, too. He limps and crawls across the room and through the hole where his door used to be, toward the bulkhead that opens onto the deck. He reaches for it.
Another explosion. That door is ripped from its hinges, and Mike is flung backward again. He’s hurt worse, but he starts moving again, struggles to make it outside. Something warm is dripping into his eyes, blurring his vision. It’s blood from a gash on his forehead. He wipes it away, looks right. The deck, the walkway, the hydraulics, the exhaust stack in engine three and part of the wall—they’re all gone, torn away by the blasts. He doesn’t see any fire, but the heat is intense.
He turns left. From the doorway, he hears a moaning voice. I’m hurt.
“I’m hurt bad, too,” he rasps. “I can’t help you.” He starts to move, stops, calls back. “But if you make it out the door, don’t go right.”
Two lifeboats, numbers three and four, are on the stern, close. But Mike’s muster station is the bridge, nearly 400 feet forward. Every Sunday morning, ten o’clock, regular as church, the Horizon crew practiced the emergency procedures for fire and abandoning ship. The worst time to screw the protocol is when the fire is real.
He grabs a life jacket and works his way through smoke thick as velvet, climbs to the bridge. He tells people to stay up front. “There’s bad, bad stuff happening back there,” he says.
Mike’s ribs shoot pain through his chest and belly. He’s got one good leg and one functioning arm to wipe the blood out of his eyes. He tries to start an emergency generator, but it won’t turn over. He limps back toward the bridge.
He can see Lifeboat One is already in the water, a closed capsule lit by oil-fueled flames on the surface. He scrambles down to the deck in time to watch Lifeboat Two release. The protocol has indeed been screwed: There are still a half-dozen people on deck, including one guy who can’t walk and is barely conscious. Mike considers his options: Lifeboats Three and Four are aft, on the other side of what is now an inferno. Smoke is swirling in oily smears, as if the fire is breathing, heaving. The derrick has disappeared behind a roiling sheet of black. The whump of explosions—fuel drums, machinery, God knows—wobble Mike every few seconds, and debris slices past like missiles.
Mike doesn’t think anyone will survive if they move aft. So the most grievously injured crewman is strapped to a backboard and loaded into an open raft. A few more people climb in—and the raft deploys.
Mike is stranded on deck.
The rig is on fire behind him.
The water is on fire below him.
Mike’s out of options.
I said my prayer. I started running. I took my leap of faith.
Mike falls for a very long time.
Three short whoops of an alarm sound through the PA system at the Coast Guard air station in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, at 10:07 p.m. Kurt Peterson, the chief rescue swimmer at the base, hears fragments of the announcement that follows, but that’s all he needs: Rig explosion, people in the water, possibly 130. He hustles toward the tarmac.
Just off the hangar, Lieutenant Commander Tom Hickey and his copilot, Lieutenant Craig Murray, are finishing their paperwork following a routine two-hour training flight. They’re both senior pilots, top-ranked instructors.
Possibly 160 in the water, with injuries.
Hickey tells Murray to restart the helicopter, an HH-65 Dolphin, then sprints into the operations center to get the Horizon‘s coordinates. The flight mechanic, Scott Lloyd, loads a mass-casualty raft. By 10:20, with the rotor spinning, Murray and Hickey learn Good Samaritans—private boats—are in the area. Lloyd unloads the raft to save weight and space in the cramped Dolphin; better to hoist survivors out of the water and fly them to stable vessels. Peterson’s job will be to cable down to the wounded and help get them ready for Lloyd to haul up.
The Dolphin, the first one in the air for the rescue, takes off at 10:28. It climbs to 700 feet, half the height of the Empire State Building. Murray and Hickey drop their NVGs—nightvision goggles—and they see a glow on the southern horizon, like a setting sun.
“Is that it?” Peterson hears them mutter. “Holy shit, I think that’s it.”
The Deepwater Horizon is 145 miles away.
Mike Williams is alive, and he knows he’s alive because his entire body is in agony. Seawater slicked with oil and diesel is soaking into his wounds, stinging, burning. He’s also blind, oil sliming his face, dripping into his eyes. But he can feel the heat coming off the Horizon. He turns his face toward it and begins an awkward backstroke with his one good arm, his right, using the heat as a beacon to mark what he wants to get away from.
And then he’s dead. Nothing hurts anymore. His arm, his leg, his ribs, every screaming pore—all numb. The sea is silent. The heat from the rig cools. He sees only black. I must be dead.
A bang from somewhere behind him. Nope, not dead. All the pain flashes back, the heat beats on his face. His arm struggles into another backstroke.
Mike fades out again, comes back with the pain, comes back when a voice yells, Over here, over here, and then a hand is on his life jacket, lifting him, pulling him out of the water and into the Bankston’s little open-bow rescue boat.
The first dolphin is forty miles from the Horizon. Cougar 92, a private helicopter with a three-bed medical unit on board, is eight minutes behind. A Lifeflight helicopter is also coming in, plus another Dolphin from Belle Chasse and a Jayhawk and a third Dolphin dispatched from Mobile, Alabama. A fid-wing plane is also coming from Mobile to circle high above as a communications platform.
From his seat in the back of the Dolphin, Kurt Peterson can see the Horizon without NVGs, a torch burning on the flat black line where the sea meets the sky. He holds out his thumb, a rough height gauge. The flames rise to his first knuckle, and Peterson has enormous hands.
Hickey gets the Bankston on the radio. Captain Landry has survivors on board, but Hickey wants a firm count, wants to know how many are missing, how many his crew are looking for in the water.
The Dolphin drops to 250 feet as it nears the Horizon, and Murray has to look up to see the top of the flames. A few hundred yards out, the pilots can feel the heat through the cockpit. They take the helicopter down lower, fifty feet off the water, and bank in toward the Horizon. The Dolphin closes to 150 feet. A raft is drifting under the rig, and every man on the helicopter stares at it, trying to see if any people are on board. They decide it’s empty just as a glob of fire drops onto it from above. Then Hickey feels a searing blast of heat, the same sensation as putting his hands too close to a campfire.
The Dolphin backs away from the rig, widens its circle, keeps flying wider and wider loops until it’s searched the sea a mile out. No bodies in the water.
It turns toward the Bankston and drops into a hover forty feet above the stern. Peterson, who’s trained as an EMT, clips the hoist cable to his harness and is lowered to the deck, slick with drilling mud from the blowout. He detaches the cable, and the down gusts from the rotor nearly knock him off his feet. He catches his balance and starts to shuffle-walk forward; it reminds him of how he’d walk on ice when he was stationed up in Michigan.
At the fore end of the deck, fourteen men are gathered, all injured but mobile. Inside the ship, there are three others in far worse shape, burned and bloody and broken, drifting in and out of consciousness. A paramedic from the Horizon is stabilizing them.
There is no litter—a hoistable stretcher, basically—on the Dolphin, so Peterson can’t send any of the trauma patients out for Scott Lloyd to hoist. Peterson grabs the worst of the walking wounded instead, a guy wrapped in a blanket, shivering, with a broken arm and burns on his back. Lloyd helps him out of the basket and into the helicopter.
For more than four hours, helicopters fly in a synchronized loop, one hoisting over the Bankston, another hovering nearby to move in, a third off-loading patients and refueling on the Na Kika, a production rig fourteen miles away where Cougar 92 has set up a triage unit. As Hickey spins his Dolphin toward the Na Kika, the one from Mobile moves in to lift four more survivors. Then the second Dolphin from Belle Chasse arrives with a litter. Its rescue swimmer, a block of a man named Dustin Bernatovich, is lowered down, and he and Peterson wrestle a stretcher with the worst-off trauma patient to the litter.
As pilots approach their maximum flight time, the Dolphins will turn back toward shore, which is why a third Dolphin is en route from Belle Chasse. Lieutenant Christopher Aument and his crew spend most of the night on a rig nearby, waiting for the others to max out. At 3:50 a.m., a rookie flight mechanic on Aument’s helicopter lifts the last of the walking wounded off the Bankston.
Mike is released from the hospital at 9:30 a.m., four hours after he was admitted. A Coast Guard helicopter flew him to the air station, and a Plaquemines Parish ambulance took him to the medical center. Now he’s being driven to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Kenner, just outside New Orleans. He’s the first survivor to arrive at the command post and welcome center, where there are clean clothes and hot meals and cigarettes.
Someone takes Mike by the elbow. He’s told the Coast Guard wants to talk to him, now, while it’s all still fresh in his mind. Mike, accompanied by a lawyer from Transocean, goes into a conference room and gives a statement. When he finishes, someone else grabs him outside the room: The Transocean lawyers want a statement, too.
Mike says no. He hasn’t slept for thirty-six hours. He wants to shower the grease off his skin and put food in his belly and lie down and shut his eyes. And he does all those things, gets a room and showers and eats and climbs into bed and maybe falls asleep. But the Crowne Plaza is near the airport and a plane flies low and loud over the hotel and Mike bolts up in his bed because he’s not really there just then but back on the rig where everything is on fire.
The Spreading Poison
A small armada of oil skimmers and service boats are puttering about the Gulf of Mexico, attending to what is, officially, a minor ecological untidiness. The wounded Macondo well supposedly is trickling a mere thousand barrels of crude into the sea every day.
That is a ridiculous number, and an obviously ridiculous one, albeit less ridiculous than the one announced four days ago, which was zero. “The blowout preventer,” Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry announced at a press briefing on Friday, April 23, “appears to be working.”
It is important to note that Admiral Landry was not obfuscating. Rather, she—indeed, everyone—was relying on BP for information. The BOP is under a mile of water, in a dark and murky place that can be seen only by remotely controlled submersibles, which the Coast Guard neither owns nor operates. Visibility is so poor and the water so deep, in fact, that it required two days of searching to locate the capsized wreckage of the Horizon, which had burned for thirty-six hours before toppling into the waves.
The Friday briefing was not, primarily, about the potential environmental impact but was instead to announce that the Coast Guard was suspending its search for Shane Roshto and the other ten missing men. After twenty-eight sorties by plane and boat and helicopter covering a swath of ocean the size of Connecticut, “we have reached the point,” Landry said, “where the reasonable expectation of survival has passed.”
So that left the oil, or the threat of the oil. By Tuesday, a week after the explosion, when the BOP has clearly failed and the well is purportedly leaking only 1,000 barrels a day, crude the color of dime-store chocolate streaks miles of the surface in long, ragged ribbons. Approaching from the north, even a mile out, before the stink begins to sting the eyes, the water is divided by a stark and clearly defined line, a border of oil.
Given the undeniable silliness of its initial estimate, BP soon quintuples it to 5,000 barrels a day, another egregious lowball that for weeks will be repeated religiously by reporters, a fragment of boilerplate—210,000 gallons a day—in daily news reports.
Meanwhile, other scientists—oceanographers, environmentalists, an assortment of professionals who share no culpability in having punctured a hemorrhaging wound in the earth’s surface—calculate much higher figures based on satellite imagery and a basic understanding of how the ocean functions. Oil bleeding out of a hole a mile down, for instance, will get swept into sub-sea currents and dragged Lord knows where; deep-sea pressure will make it heavier, less likely to rise; thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants, a toxin in their own right, break the crude into droplets that linger at staggering depths. In mid-May scientists will discover plumes of oil, miles long and miles wide, spreading at 4,300 and 2,600 feet below the surface.
BP, for its part, maintains that measuring the flow more precisely isn’t possible (not true, but whatever), and in any case, what’s the point? If it can’t clean up 5,000 barrels a day, BP seems to be saying, what difference does it make if Macondo is spewing 70,000? To BP, for right now, it makes no difference at all, except that 5,000 isn’t nearly so catastrophic a number. BP can’t unwreck the ocean, and the damage, environmental and economic ruin on a heretofore unimaginable scale, will become apparent in time, when the lawyers and public-relations people are better equipped to deal with it.
Johnny Schneider is pulling traps from one of the marsh channels near Shell Beach, he and his deckhand, Claude Norton, hauling up mesh cages crawling with blue crabs. Number one males, mostly, the ones that bring the better prices. This time last year he was taking a quarter ton a day and selling them for $2.35 a pound to brokers who’d ship them all over the country. A lot of Johnny’s catch ended up in Baltimore.
Claude unlatches every trap he brings up, holds it over the side of Johnny’s paint-speckled skiff, and dumps the crabs into the water, then gives the trap a firm shake to jostle out the cranky ones with a claw clamped on the mesh. Johnny doesn’t count how many dollars are going overboard, because, really, why bother with the heartache? As far as the state of Louisiana is concerned, those crabs are worthless, because this particular patch of crabbing ground has been closed. The heavy oil hasn’t washed into the marsh yet, but the stink is heavy at Point Chico and Johnny’s already seen a couple of dead dolphins and a shitload of dead catfish. Crabs are scavengers, feeding at the low end of the food chain, and between the dispersants and the oil, no one can say for certain what toxin has got into what tiny creatures.
His oyster leases are closed, too. Nine days of dragging and then nothing, his rich fishing grounds gone in a flash. In the weeks to come, the state will open some of his leases, but who knows for how long? Already the shrimp season has opened twice, weeks earlier than it usually does and only to get ahead of the oil just over the horizon, and both times it was closed again within twenty-four hours.
“It’s gonna be bad,” Johnny says, taking a pull off his Bud Light. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re out of business. What am I gonna do now?” What he’s going to do now is pack up his gear, his oyster rakes and his crab traps and his rigging, and put them in storage and hope they don’t rot before he can get them back in the water. And then maybe he’ll go to work for BP, like Claude and his brothers, Earl and Mitchell, laying containment boom. He’s got a family to feed, and the BP money’s not bad. Not fishing money, but decent.
Not that he’s in it for the money. Hell, he’s pissed at the guys who are in it for the money, the contractors from out of town. Earl and Mitchell are, too. They see those guys on the water, puttering along at fifteen knots in a boat that’ll do forty easy, rolling out boom with twists at the joints, half-assing the anchorages. “Milking the clock,” Earl says. Near as they can tell, there are people who make an hourly wage cleaning up messes and therefore would like said mess to linger. And then there are people like Earl and Mitchell and Johnny and thousands more who make their living from the waters that mess is polluting. “They’re just doing a job,” Johnny explains. “We’re trying to save some shit.”
Down the Mississippi River, where dry Louisiana land runs out at the little town of Venice, Freddy Demolle is at a table in the Riverside Restaurant on Highway 23, a block of a building with brick-red walls except for one, which is covered with a mural of the marsh. A woman from Prince William Sound has come to commiserate with the locals, to explain what happened after the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude in a pristine bay, to tell them what’s still happening twenty years later. Freddy hears her talk about the dispersants, how they’re bad for people and worse for sea life. Freddy listens while she explains how the oil never truly goes away, how it will haunt a place for decades, and maybe forever.
“Like she said,” Freddy sighs a few days after, “twenty years later, they’re still finding oil in the sand and under rocks.”
Twenty years of oil in the marshes would be cataclysmic. Louisiana produces about a third of the nation’s seafood, and nearly all of that life begins in the estuaries, in the tangles of grasses and muck where microscopic organisms are the source material for the entire food chain. Those wetlands are already disappearing at a devastating pace, forty-seven square miles swallowed by the sea in just the past year. To lose more to poison is both unthinkable and unforgivable.
“Can’t waste time being mad,” Freddy says. “That’s not gonna get anything done.”
So Freddy does the only thing he can, which is take a check from BP and go down to the boatyard to load booms on the fishing boats.
In the little town of Hopedale, on the east side of the Mississippi River, a captain named Casey agrees to take five photographers, one writer, and a Russian TV crew out to the barrier islands in his thirty-five-foot boat. His passengers are paying 200 bucks a head for a thumping two-hour ride because there is a rumor that oil has washed ashore on the low, flat rookeries off the coast, and they would very much like to photograph and videotape the spoilage.
The rumor is plausible, of course, because the Macondo well has by now leaked at least 3 million gallons (by BP’s estimate) and almost certainly tens of millions more. Efforts to contain the surface slick have been only minimally effective, and stopping or even slowing the flow has so far been impossible. Why, just this morning, BP announced that its latest attempt—planting a four-story inverted funnel over the worst of the three breaks in the riser—had promptly failed.
On the other hand, BP had repeatedly warned that the idea was a long shot. Though the technique had been successfully employed in shallower waters, “it has never been attempted at this depth,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, had said. That phrase had become a mantra, a preemptive excuse for every reparative technique. None of them had ever been attempted at this depth, because no one had ever screwed up so badly at this depth, perhaps at any depth. The best hope for sealing the renegade well, ironically, was drilling another one to relieve the pressure and allow a cement team to plug Macondo. Starting from a spot a mile or so away, in equally deep waters, engineers in early May began boring a hole 18,000 feet down and then over toward Macondo, where they will come within ten feet of the original twenty-one inch shaft. That they can do, the equivalent of an eight-ball bank shot on a billiard table the size of Giants Stadium. Energy companies have developed breathtaking technology to drill deeper into the seabed beneath ever deeper waters, yet they have little more than absorbent mops and floating Shop-Vacs to clean up the mess if it all goes wrong. Their disaster plan—the only technologically workable plan—is merely hoping there is no disaster, which is no plan at all.
Meanwhile, the mops and vacuums can’t keep up. The seas are rolling at three feet, rough enough that oil slops over the containment booms and shreds the absorbent ones; by the time Casey makes it to Freemason Island, the boats that had been dispatched that morning to lay boom in Breton Sound are motoring back into Biloxi Marsh.
But there is no oil on the beach, and the photographers are pissed. They have been chasing oil and rumors of oil for days. They have flown in helicopters and gotten nauseated on boats and driven hundreds of miles in search of tar balls and slippery black birds, and there are hundreds more of them, staffers and stringers and freelancers who’ve been chasing the same rumors, too. And they’ve got nothing, save lots of brown streaks far out at sea and some dead jellyfish and two pitiable birds in a wildlife rehab that are now perhaps the most photographed animals on the planet.
Their frustration is not nearly as parasitic as it seems. True, they would prefer to make pictures that are more interesting than an empty beach. But they are also trying to document a disaster that is likely altering the ecosystem in ways too terrifying to contemplate—and yet it is virtually invisible. The wreck of the Exxon Valdez remains the benchmark—every new estimate of the Macondo leakage is inevitably measured in Valdez Units, as in equal to one Exxon Valdez every four weeks or such—because it was a visceral catastrophe. There were pictures of otters and seagulls and fish, all soaked in oil and struggling or dying or dead.
Those pictures will come to the Gulf. In two weeks’ time, oil will creep into the estuaries and onto the beaches, and it will soak turtles and pelicans and gannets and laughing gulls, and dead birds will begin to wash ashore. But for now, nineteen days into an endless disaster, there are only murky videos and grainy stills from deep underwater and, on the surface and from the air, ripples of frothy crude that, in the right light, can appear rather pretty instead of grotesque and abhorrent.
The Deepwater Horizon quickly becomes a full-employment opportunity for lawyers. Within weeks, dozens of them file hundreds of lawsuits, from wrongful-death and personal-injury claims to class actions on behalf of more or less everyone who works on or lives within driving distance of the Gulf Coast. Because the laws governing such matters are somewhat complicated, a jumble of OPAs and DOHSAs and antiquated torts, and because so many attorneys are involved, the legal wrangling will almost certainly drag out for a decade or more. (The final Exxon Valdez claims weren’t disposed of until 2009.)
Scott Bickford, a well-regarded New Orleans attorney, filed the first claim, on behalf of Natalie Roshto. (He also represents Mike Williams in a separate suit.) Bickford filed the suit in Louisiana. Transocean, however, would like all the cases heard in oil-friendly Texas, where in May it filed a petition, based on an antiquated maritime law, to have its liability for the disaster capped at $26.7 million. “We don’t want Texas justice for a Louisiana problem,” Bickford says.
When Natalie’s suit was first reported, anonymous people logged on to the Internet and typed awful things about her. People who had never met her, who had never heard of Shane an hour before, who had never worked on an oil rig or been widowed by a corporate fuckup in the middle of the ocean, called her greedy and heartless, accused her of cashing in on her husband and her little boy’s dead daddy. Natalie read some of those anonymous comments, then shut down her computer. They have it all wrong. It wouldn’t matter if she was looking for a lottery ticket, anyway: Under the federal laws that cover people who die on the high seas, she’s eligible for not much more than a portion of Shane’s lifetime earnings. She has her own reasons for suing, and those aren’t greedy at all.
“Shane always told me, ‘If anything ever happens to me out there, you better fight till you’re blue in the face,'” she says. Because if something ever happened to Shane, that meant something went wrong—something that shouldn’t have gone wrong and shouldn’t go wrong again—and usually it takes a judge and a jury to get that point across with any authority. “I want to be able to sit down with Blaine twenty years from now and tell him something really bad happened one night,” she says, “but here are all the good things that came out of it. Here are the safety rules that changed, here are the regulations that changed.”
But what does she tell him now? What does she tell a 3-year-old boy who’d just figured out that Daddy was gone when his truck was gone and Daddy was home when his truck was home, but now Daddy’s truck is home and Daddy’s not? What does she tell him when Blaine is playing with a toy John Deere and slips and bumps his arm and he’s not really hurt but he’s crying and he wants his Daddy? What does she tell him then?
She tells him the only thing she can think of. “Just raise your arm up toward the sky,” she says, “and let Daddy kiss it.”
And because Blaine is only 3, he believes her. So he raises his arm and says, “Thank you, Daddy,” and sniffes away the last of his tears.
Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent.