Port Fourchon, La. Life on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has come a long way since the black gold was discovered underwater here 60 years ago.
Living for weeks on a platform the size of two football fields away from the mainland can be comfortable, with good pay, catered cafeterias serving steak and spicy Cajun, lounges with pool tables and even mini movie theaters. At other times, it’s a water world of hot metal, cramped sleeping quarters and skin-burning sun.
The hardest part is simply being away from family.
Karl Kleppinger Jr., a Desert Storm veteran who spent more than 10 years working on oil rigs, was a dedicated floorman who made about $75,000 a year working off the Louisiana coast on the Deepwater Horizon, which erupted into a giant fireball Tuesday night. He was among 11 workers presumed dead after Coast Guard officials suspended their search Friday, saying they believed the workers never made it off the state-of-the-art semi-submersible platform.
Kleppinger, 38, worked near the drilling, at the heart of the operation. He had been away from his family for about three weeks when he made his nightly call home just before the blast, but the long-distance banter was different this time, said his wife, Tracy.
“I can’t explain, there was this feeling that things were bad,” she said. “It was a string of ‘I love yous, I need you home.’ That basically was the final words to each other.”
The accident was one of the worst oil rig disasters in the Gulf in decades. Crews were still trying to clean up the oil that spilled during the fire, but had to halt activities Saturday because of choppy seas, strong winds and rain.
The tragedy brought even more attention to safety for an industry known for its dangers, whether it’s the helicopter ride to the platform or working on the rig itself.
“You could know how long someone had been in the oil industry by how many digits were missing,” said Windell Curole, a Lafourche Parish levee manager whose father raised the family with the sweat of long days on oil rigs.
Dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries have occurred over the last several years, convincing the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which oversees the industry, that new procedures aimed at preventing human error were needed. The rules are being developed.
Companies say they go to great lengths to make life on the Gulf comfortable and safe. And officials with Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater and was under contract by oil giant BP, point to the other 115 crew members who safely made it off the platform as evidence.
Bud Danenberger, former offshore regulations chief at the Minerals Management Service, said safety training is ingrained in the industry.
About 35,000 people work in the Gulf each day, and most do it for the paycheck.
“I don’t think many people fall in love with it. It’s the good money,” said Kenneth Cox, 31, an offshore worker from Trinidad.