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May 7, 2010 / V A Nichols

Will it Work?

Crew couldn’t stop oil disaster; can they fix it?


The Associated Press

12:10 a.m. Friday, May 7, 2010

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO — The burly, bearded man in overalls settled into the command chair of the Joe Griffin and admired the precious cargo firmly attached to the stern of the supply boat: a four-story box jutting from the deck that would soon be lowered into the Gulf of Mexico to contain an out-of-control oil gusher.

Sean “Slim” Weichel was on the same boat 16 days ago when he and his mates responded to the oil rig explosion, dousing the flames of the Deepwater Horizon in what proved to be a futile effort to keep it from sinking.

Their latest assignment: Return to the scene of the disaster with a giant concrete-and-metal box designed to cover the biggest leak and funnel the oil to a tanker on the surface.

“We are carrying a tool that could possibly end a lot of this ordeal,” said Weichel, a bespectacled 35-year-old deckhand from Rocklin, Calif. “It is exhilarating to know we might be able to do some more good than we could before.”

The Associated Press obtained exclusive access to the transport ship and the tricky oil containment endeavor that began Thursday.

Crew members strapped the containment device to the ship with heavy-duty chains and rumbled out to sea in their 280-foot vessel. As they got closer to the spill site, the crackling of radio transmissions and the pungent odor of oil filled the night air. Once there, the ship was surrounded by globs of oil as far as the eye could see.

The crew was eager to accomplish something positive just two weeks after they watched in horror as the inferno raged and the rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

As they waited to lower the containment box, they watched the news in the ship’s entertainment room. They ate chicken wings and pecan pie. They studied a bank of flat-screen monitors filled with navigational information. The captain, Demi Shaffer, drank another cup of coffee and looked out at the containment box through a pair of black sunglasses, his long brown hair touching his shoulders.

The workers had to wait several hours at the scene as the crew of another ship made final preparations to grab the device with a giant crane and put it in the water.

Men in red jumpsuits with white hard hats and life vests were lowered to the deck of the Joe Griffin from the other ship, a hulking semi-submersible drilling vessel called the Helix Q4000. They removed some sandbags from the Joe Griffin that will be used in the oil containment effort.

All the while, the big box loomed in the background, ready to be submerged in the Gulf.

The sides of the concrete-and-steel structure are marked with “N,” ”S,” ”E” and “W” to help ensure it is set down correctly. Several notches designate depth, almost like a supersized yard stick.

The mission was not assured of success. This method of containing the oil has been used before, but never in such deep water.

With little breeze and fumes rising from the sea, fears arose that a spark could ignite a new fire and complicate the lowering of the box. More time passed. The deckhands waited, with respirators on, while air-quality readings were taken.

Finally, after 10 p.m. CDT, the crane slowly lifted the containment box from the ship and into the dark Gulf, oil clinging to its outer casing as it began the hourslong journey to the muddy seabed a mile below. Once in place, they will install a pipe that will funnel the oil to the surface.

Douglas Peake, first mate of the Joe Griffin, was hoping this trip to the source of the spill would wash away the disappointment from the last one, when the crew watched the Deepwater Horizon sink into the gulf.

“It sounds kind of corny,” he said, “but it was like we just lost a fight or something.”


May 07, 2010 12:10 AM EDT

Copyright 2010, The Associated Press.

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