The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig drew attention to a dangerous livelihood that helps fuel the United States. There were 126 workers onboard the Gulf of Mexico rig, which was owned by Transocean and leased to BP. Methane gas shot up the well and ignited, killing 11 workers instantly and injuring 17. The survivors later described to journalists a scene of chaos: The fire turned the night sky as bright as day, people swarmed the lifeboats, some even leapt off the rig. The general alarm didn’t go off, and when one worker took it upon herself to issue a distress call, she was reprimanded by a superior officer for acting without an order.
Once on the lifeboats, the survivors didn’t feel any safer. Oil was on the water, and there was a risk that they could burn up at sea. One man said it felt like they were “waiting to die.” The 115 survivors were rescued by the rig’s nearby supply ship but idled on the water for at least 15 hours.
When they finally reached shore, the workers were whisked away to a hotel in Kenner, Louisiana, to be questioned by Transocean consultants and investigators. They were urged to sign forms, drawn up by company lawyers, stating that they hadn’t witnessed the event that required evacuation and that they were not injured. Transocean employees later told reporters that when some of them sought compensation for psychiatric problems and other blast injuries, lawyers held the forms against them.
For its part, BP established a $100 million fund for the tens of thousands of oil rig workers left unemployed by the accident and by the federal government’s subsequent six-month moratorium on offshore drilling. The moratorium left oil workers unhappy: not only were they not working, but they also risked losing a multiyear job if their rigs moved elsewhere rather than sitting idle in the Gulf. Despite the danger, the oil industry has long offered a good living for blue-collar workers on the Gulf Coast.
In October the administration ended the moratorium six weeks early, clearing the way for drilling operations to resume. But the families of the 11 victims are still grappling with their loss. Many said they simply want answers from Transocean, M-I Swaco (the drilling fluid contractor), or BP. The gushing oil spill overshadowed the 11 deaths, but months after the explosion, people continued to leave condolences at the Deepwater Horizon online memorial.
Despite the legal intervention, survivors told their stories at the government hearings in May. Many remained traumatized by the event, however, and filed more than 260 lawsuits in 12 states. Some, however, do plan to return to deep waters. “I just hope we learn from this and nothing like that ever happens again,” one 24-year-old engineer told MSNBC. “It just changes the way you look at things, and you have a new respect for things you can’t control. You can’t take things for granted.”