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Oil rig survivors back on land; 11 missing

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) - Survivors of a thunderous blast aboard
an oil platform off the Louisiana coast were being reunited with
their families at a suburban New Orleans hotel early Thursday as
the search for 11 missing workers continued.

About 100 workers had made it to a supply boat after Tuesday
night's explosion, then were plucked from the Gulf of Mexico by
Coast Guard rescuers. After a slow-moving trek across the waters,
the workers finally made it ashore at Port Fourchon earlier
Thursday where they were checked by doctors and brought to a hotel
in suburban New Orleans to awaiting relatives.

"I've seen a lot of things, but I've never seen anything like
that," said a visibly tired worker, who declined to give his name
as he got in a car to leave.

The rig, where exploratory drilling was being done about 50
miles off the coast of Louisiana, exploded late Tuesday, sending
workers scurrying for safety. Seventeen people were injured in the
blast and taken to hospitals, four critically, in what could be one
of the nation's deadliest offshore drilling accidents of the past
half-century.

Coast Guard crews in two cutters have been searching around the
clock for the missing, said Coast Guard Lt. Sue Kerver. The air
search, which had been called off for the night, resumed Thursday
morning.

The rig is owned by Transocean Ltd. and was under contract to
oil giant BP.

Authorities could not say when the flames might die out on the
400-by-250-foot rig, which is roughly twice the size of a football
field, according the Transocean's website. A column of boiling
black smoke rose hundreds of feet over the Gulf of Mexico as
fireboats shot streams of water at the blaze. Officials said the
damage to the environment appeared minimal so far.

Adrian Rose, vice president of Transocean, said the explosion
appeared to be a blowout, in which natural gas or oil forces its
way up a well pipe and smashes the equipment. But precisely what
went wrong was under investigation.

A total of 126 workers were aboard. Seventy-nine were Transocean
workers, six were BP employees and 41 were contracted. The Coast
Guard said the 17 taken by air or sea to hospitals suffered burns,
broken legs and smoke inhalation.

One of the deadliest U.S. offshore drilling accidents was in
1964, when a catamaran-type drilling barge operated by Pan American
Petroleum Corp. near Eugene Island, about 80 miles off Louisiana,
suffered a blowout and explosion while drilling a well. Twenty-one
crew members died. The deadliest offshore drilling explosion was in
1988 about 120 miles off Aberdeen, Scotland, in which 167 men were
killed.

Rose said the Deepwater Horizon crew had drilled the well to its
final depth, more than 18,000 feet, and was cementing the steel
casing at the time of the explosion.

"They did not have a lot of time to evacuate. This would have
happened very rapidly," he said.

According to Transocean's website, the rig was built in 2001 in
South Korea and is designed to operate in water up to 8,000 feet
deep, drill 5½ miles down, and accommodate a crew of 130. It floats
on pontoons and is moored to the sea floor by several large
anchors.

Workers typically spend two weeks on the rig at a time, followed
by two weeks off. Offshore oil workers typically earn $40,000 to
$60,000 a year - more if they have special skills.

Working on offshore oil rigs is a dangerous job but has become
safer in recent years thanks to improved training, safety systems
and maintenance, said Joe Hurt, regional vice president for the
International Association of Drilling Contractors.

Since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries
and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf, according to the federal
Minerals Management Service.

Stanley Murray of Monterey, La., was reunited with his son,
Chad, early Thursday morning. His son, an electrician aboard the
rig, had ended his shift just before the explosion.

"If he had been there five minutes later, he would have been
burned up," a relieved Stanley Murray said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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