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Deepwater Horizon Explosion: Witnesses Recount Inferno On The Gulf

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VENICE, La. — Oleander Benton was chatting with a friend in the laundry when the lights went out. The other woman had just gotten up to find a maintenance person when the deep-sea oil rig shook with an ear-shattering "BANG," followed by a long, loud "hisssss."

Benton's safety training kicked in. The cook hit the floor as ceiling tiles and light fixtures came crashing down on her head and back. The concussion had blown a door off its hinges and pinned her friend to the floor.

"My leg! My leg!" the woman screamed.

Benton rose to her feet, and stepped over the debris, but she couldn't move the door. She told her friend to lie flat and slide herself out, and the two made their way into the darkened hallway, where a man in a white T-shirt appeared out of the swirling dust and beckoned.

"Come on, Miss O!" he shouted. "Go this way. This is the real deal! This is the REAL DEAL!"

After a carnival funhouse journey through halls illuminated only by "EXIT" signs, and clogged with dazed and injured people, Benton emerged onto the deck of the Deepwater Horizon.

Fire and mud were spewing from the rig's shattered 242-foot derrick. People with ghastly head wounds were scrambling about.

Many had been asleep when the blast occurred, and wandered the slick, debris-strewn deck shoeless, clad in little more than their orange lifejackets, their bare skin speckled with bits of white insulation from blown-out walls.

Benton slipped and stumbled as she headed for her assigned lifeboat.

As a worker checked off names, Benton was transported back five years to Hurricane Katrina.

She had spent five hellish days in the swelter of the Louisiana Superdome. That was the last time she had felt this kind of heat, this kind of terror.

It was April 20 – Benton's 52nd birthday.

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With its complement of 126 riggers, contractors and support personnel, the Deepwater Horizon – floating 48 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico – had a population larger than that of at least a half-dozen Louisiana towns. This "floatel" had a gymnasium, movie theater, lounge, helicopter pad – just about everything a small city would need.

April 20 was a big day for BP PLC and the rig's inhabitants.

The day before, contractors from Halliburton Energy Services Inc. had finished cementing the well's pipes nearly 5,000 feet below the water's surface. Workers were busy setting a second seal at the well head, one of the last steps before the rig could move off, and the exploration well – in an area of the Gulf known as Mississippi Canyon Block 252 – could make the transition to a production well.

BP executives were on board to celebrate that milestone and another achievement – Deepwater Horizon was the first rig to go seven years without a lost-time accident. They were gathered in the living quarters just below the working deck when an enormous bubble of explosive methane gas erupted from the sea floor and rocketed up the drill pipe's 21-inch metal sheath toward the surface.

It was around 10 p.m.

Crane operator Micah Sandell, 40, of Leesville, La., was in the cab 30 feet off the deck when he saw the water and mud shoot up and out of the derrick. He knew immediately it was a blowout, and he got on the radio to tell the crew to move to the front of the rig.

When the gushing stopped after a few minutes, Sandell took a deep breath.

"Oh, good," he said to himself. "They got it under control."

Suddenly, vapor and spray began shooting out of a goosenecked pipe on the starboard side of the deck, followed by thick, black smoke. Sandell quickly shut off his air conditioner to avoid sucking any noxious fumes into the cab.

Then something exploded.

Sandell was knocked to the floor, and fire engulfed the cabin. Certain he was about to die, the devout Baptist clapped his hands over his head and cried, "Oh, God. No."

But after a few seconds, he stood up and realized the fireball had passed him over. He made it halfway down the stairs before another blast occurred, throwing him 15 feet to the steel deck.

He got up again and ran, feeling his way along the deck rail around the port side toward the lifeboats.

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Marine biology student Albert Andry III and three high school buddies had come to the Deepwater Horizon for a couple leisurely days of tuna fishing and beer drinking. It turned out to be anything but leisurely.

The group had left Venice around 3 p.m. in Andry's 26-foot catamaran, the Endorfin, and had spent the afternoon fishing for blackfin near BP's Amberjack Rig 109 near the South Pass of the Mississippi River. Andry's radar had been stolen recently, so when they'd landed enough fish, the 23-year-old from Mandeville, La., headed for the Deepwater Horizon, where they would idle overnight.

The men arrived at sunset. The water was smooth as glass and teeming with jellyfish, their translucent blue and white "sails" erect in the light breeze.

They were fishing for bait under the lip of the platform when water began raining down from the rig's network of pipes – so much that Andry thought the crew was dumping the bilges to keep the Deepwatwer Horizon from sinking. Andry's eyes began to burn, and buddy Wes Bourg – who had worked on offshore rigs – told the skipper they needed to get out of there. Fast.

"Go, go, go, go, GOOOOO!" Bourg shouted. With no radar and only the light of a crescent moon to see by, Andry pointed the bow north, gunned the twin 140-horsepower Suzuki outboards and hit the deck.

They were about 100 yards from the Deepwater Horizon when the lights went out, and the first of a series of massive booms shook the rig.

The lifeboats hanging off the side of the rig were covered and could hold up to 50 people each. Crew members with clipboards called out names as people clambered aboard.

As Sandell stood in line awaiting his turn, panicked workers were screaming to get the boats in the water, even though they were not yet full.

"Drop them off!"

"Get them away!"

Some couldn't wait any longer, and jumped.

It was 80 feet to the water. A person falling from that height would take about 2.25 seconds to hit the water and experience about 20 Gs – roughly the same force as a car hitting a brick wall at 55 mph.

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In Port Fourchon harbor, the service vessel Joe Griffin was tied up at the Halliburton slip. Capt. Nate Foster was standing on the bridge shortly before 11 p.m. when the radio crackled to life.

"We need you to get out there as fast as you can," the dispatcher barked. "We have people in the water."

The orange-hulled vessel is primarily a supply ship, and much of its 280-foot length is comprised of open deck space. But the Joe Griffin is also equipped with two water cannons, each capable of shooting 5,000 gallons of water per minute.

Foster picked up the ship's phone and called the engine room.

"I want the engines started," the 37-year-old Montanan told the oiler. "We need 'em NOW. Don't let them warm up."

Then he got on the radio to the crew.

"Get ready to cast off right now," he said. "We need to leave immediately."

A process that normally takes 20 minutes was accomplished in fewer than five.

The Joe Griffin backed out of the slip and steamed out of the harbor at 10 knots – more than double the normal speed. As the vessel entered open water, Foster opened the throttle all the way, to 12 knots.

At that speed, it would take nine and a half hours to reach the Deepwater Horizon. Foster knew he'd be thinking the whole time of people in the water.

The 260-foot Damon B. Bankston, a black-hulled cargo vessel, was tethered to the Deepwater Horizon. That day, it had been pumping drilling mud from the rig for use at the next job.

The first explosion threw Seaman Elton Johnson of Bunkie, La., about seven feet into an engine-room door, temporarily knocking him unconscious. When he came to, he staggered to the deck and looked over the rail to see people floating in the water.

Like the rest of the crew, Johnson began fishing out survivors.

By the glow of the inferno, Andry could see people swimming and motoring toward the Bankston. He got on his radio and asked whether he could approach the rig and join in the rescue effort.

"Negative. Negative," came the reply.

Bourg said there could be damaged pipes under the water. So the group decided to back off a mile to wait, and watch.

On the Deepwater Horizon, deck pusher Bill Johnson, supervising operations on the deck, worked his way across the rig, acrid smoke burning his lungs. He ushered two members of his crew into a lifeboat and shoved off, but there was one man missing.

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Crane operator Aaron Dale Burkeen of Philadelphia, Miss., had relieved Sandell for dinner. The starboard crane had been down. He finished changing out the cable and began making up for the lost time.

The 37-year-old father of two had just recently received his 10-year certificate from Transocean, the rig's owner (BP was its operator). April 20 was his and wife Rhonda's eighth wedding anniversary; his birthday was four days away.

When the first concussion hit, he began the process of lowering his crane's 150-foot boom into its cradle and locking it down. He got it to about a 30-degree angle when he decided to make a run for it.

He was about halfway down the spiral staircase when a massive explosion occurred. Johnson – who was not just Burkeen's direct supervisor, but also one of his best friends – watched helplessly from the rocking boat as the whole starboard side of the rig erupted in a cloud of smoke and flame.

Burkeen just vanished.

Andry had lingered at the site, sweeping the water with his flood lights for survivors. After about four hours and running low on fuel, he decided to head back to port.

The Joe Griffin was still 35 miles out when the crew saw it – a glow on the horizon like a mini-sunrise.

Twenty minutes out, Capt. Foster ordered the crew to fire up the water cannon pumps. When the vessel arrived at the scene around 8:30 a.m., flames were shooting several hundred feet into the air, and oil was raining down on the two-dozen or so boats trying to fight the fire and ferry survivors.

The rig was engulfed and listing to one side.

The Deepwater Horizon was not anchored to the bottom with cables, but was "dynamically positioned" – held in place by eight 7,375-horsepower thrusters that worked in a computer-coordinated water ballet to keep her above the well head nearly a mile below.

With no power and no people to operate the thrusters, the drill pipe and its casing were the only things holding the rig in place. The Deepwater Horizon was at the mercy of the wind and waves, and Foster and the other rescue boat captains had to perform evasive maneuvers to keep from being rammed by the flaming hulk.

Even through the glass windows and protective shell of the bridge, First Mate Doug Peake could feel the inferno's heat on his skin. As he trained the cannon on the fire, he thought to himself: "This is a lost cause."

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A little way off, Sandell stood on the Bankston's plank deck and watched the rig that had been his home for the past eight years pitch and burn. Back in his room on the Deepwater Horizon was the white gold wedding band his wife Angela slipped on his finger 17 years ago.

He wanted desperately to call home and tell his wife and their three children that he was alive. There were satellite phones on board, but the workers were not allowed to use them.

Finally, at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the Bankston headed back to port. Sandell closed his eyes and said a prayer.

When Sandell arrived at Port Fourchon early the next morning, he still hadn't slept. Eleven rig workers were unaccounted for, including Aaron Dale Burkeen.

Even as the Deepwater Horizon was in its last throes before sinking beneath the Gulf, speculation was already rampant about what had caused the explosion. Was it negligence? A freak accident? Foul play?

Sandell and the others just wanted to go ashore and call loved ones. But there was one more thing to do next.

As he debarked, he noticed some Coast Guard and company officers sitting at a table, a row of portable toilets behind them. Before they left the docks, the workers would have to be drug tested.

Tired and angry, Sandell stood in line and filled out forms. When his turn came, he took the plastic cup, stepped inside one of the outhouses, and closed the door behind him.

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Associated Press Writers Harry R. Weber, Pauline Arrillaga, Curt Anderson, Mitch Weiss, Michael Kunzelman and Noaki Schwartz contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

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