From rescuing survivors to skimming oil, mariners respond to disaster in the Gulf

When the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, professional mariners bore witness to the disaster and played a crucial role in the rescue and pollution response.

A wide assortment of commercial and government vessels responded to the oil spill after the oil rig Deepwater Horizon was engulfed by an explosion on April 20 and sank in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 85 miles off Mobile, Ala. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

After the deadly blast on April 20, commercial vessels including tankers, crew boats, offshore supply vessels, tugboats, barges, skimmers, and bulk carriers were dispatched from throughout the Gulf region and beyond. Their crews labored for months to clean up the oil and try to repair the damaged well, which by mid-June was spilling an estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day.

An oil response vessel and its attendant workboat tow a boom to capture spilled oil floating at the surface. The U.S. Coast Guard estimated that by June about 1,400 vessels were engaged in the response that began with firefighting and search and rescue operations and is continuing with oil-recovery operations and efforts to stop the flow of oil. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Even before the oil rig’s blast and blaze, the crew of Damon B Bankston anticipated an emergency. The 233-foot offshore supply vessel (OSV) had been alongside Deepwater Horizon when the rig crew began detecting trouble with the well. That’s when Bankston‘s captain, Alwin Landry, received a disturbing report from his mate, who said drilling mud was flying through the air.

“It looked like black rain was coming down,” Landry said during a federal hearing in May.

“We essentially closed the wheelhouse doors,” he said. “I went to the port side, and I looked out up at the derrick. That’s when I see mud coming out of the top of the derrick.”

A containment chamber, known as the “top hat,” is lowered into the water on May 11 by the vessel Viking Poseidon. It had been hoped that oil spilling from the well could be collected in the chamber and then pumped to the surface, but this approach failed. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

After speaking with the Deepwater Horizon crew on the radio, Bankston moved a safe distance away from the rig, and its crew watched and waited.

“I was advised they were having trouble with the well,” Landry testified. Minutes later, “I saw the green flash on the main deck of the Horizon to the aft of the derrick (and heard) •Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This rig’s on fire. Abandon ship.'”

As the platform transformed into a raging fireball, Bankston sailed back in and rescued 115 workers who survived the catastrophe. Eleven people were killed.

Two contracted fishing vessels, Mary and Jace and Gulf Rambler, pull an oil boom on May 5 during a controlled burn. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

Nearby crew boats and OSVs arrived to fight the fire and the U.S. Coast Guard attempted to search for the missing, but the effort was in vain. No additional survivors were found and the rig sank.

Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean Ltd., was under lease to BP Plc. The rig sank in 5,000-foot-deep water after a blowout preventer failed during an accident while crews were attempting to cement a casing on a newly drilled well. The exact cause is under investigation.

As the task turned to assessing the damage and measuring the oil spill, mariners moved in with pollution-response vessels and underwater robotic remotely operated vehicles.

Graham Gulf Inc.’s 167-foot OSV Gulf Protector sailed out of Port Fourchon, La., with a cargo of equipment that BP needed to try to cover the leaking wellhead riser. Transocean drillship Discoverer Enterprise arrived to deploy a containment “dome” and store the retrieved oil. That effort eventually failed.

Transocean’s ultra-deepwater semi-submersible rig Development Driller III began the months-long process of drilling a relief well intended to block the flow from the renegade well.

Offshore tugboats like the Louisiana-based Helene Maria began towing repair supplies and cleanup gear to the Deepwater Horizon site and to various Gulf ports that were staging areas for the maritime response. The 2,400-hp Helene Maria, owned by United Tugs Inc., carefully transited Alabama’s Bayou La Batre with the oil spill response barge NRC Defender, owned by contractor National Response Corp.

The 198-foot Defender, which has a capacity to store 16,500 barrels of recovered oil-water mixture, was hired as part of boom-and-skimming operations. The barge — together with the 199-foot, 20,892-barrel NRC Valiant — accompanied offshore spill-response vessels NRC Energy, NRC Admiral and NRC Liberty. National Response Corp. also used 110-foot utility boats.

National Response Corp. President Steven Candito said his vessels relied upon a corps of subcontract mariners and outside vessels to supplement his fleet’s capabilities.

“The support from the professional mariners out there has been tremendous,” Candito said. “A big part of our operations is recognizing that, in an event of this size, we’re going to need more than the dedicated vessels.”

Candito said the region’s mariners have shown great dedication in facing a unique and challenging task — all while their families and coastal neighbors are filled with anxiety over the environmental damage.

“We have gotten tremendous support from the regular tug-and-barge industry and offshore-supply-boat industry so we can get other equipment that we need, and we’re getting more personnel from the industry to relieve our crews,” Candito said. “Because of the urgency of it, in this situation, we’ve needed even more people, and we’ve had to send some of the professional mariners out to hazardous materials training on a moment’s notice, and they’ve been willing to do that.”

Another commercial operator involved in Gulf spill work was Resolve Marine, which participated in the firefighting. The company contributed Resolve Pioneer, Lana Rose and other oil recovery/containment vessels to the ongoing cleanup efforts.

Offshore tugboats and crew boats sprang into action when the Coast Guard announced that decontamination stations would be needed at sea to cleanse oil from the hulls of deep-draft oceangoing ships. At least eight decontamination locations serviced the merchant ships before they were allowed to enter Gulf ports — mostly just outside the inlets, but also far offshore.

Sean Duffy, president of the Gulf States Maritime Association, said mariners were an integral part of the planning of the decontamination stations and were key participants in the conference calls.

“The professional mariners are all working well in coming up with a resolution. There has been a good deal of coordination and communication in setting up the cleaning systems that have been established to deal with the vessels whose hulls are fouled by oil,” Duffy said. “The deep-draft navigation industry has been unimpeded.”

The Gulf region’s mariners aren’t the only ones who dropped everything to help battle the nation’s largest-ever environmental disaster. The 208.5-foot Maine Responder and several other East Coast oil-spill-recovery vessels joined the flotilla.

Also responding were the Coast Guard cutters Harry Claiborne, Cypress, Oak and Elm. Research vessels from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies surveyed the extent of the spill and its environmental harm.

By June, the Coast Guard said, 1,400 vessels were on the job out in the Gulf or along the shorelines. That number includes commercial, government and fishing vessels. The Coast Guard didn’t have an estimate of how many were commercial.

Duffy noted that the Gulf region’s mariners mobilized aggressively during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and recovery. They’re earning even more disaster-response expertise as a result of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

“Because of the hurricane area, the mariners in this area are very good at preparing and addressing these types of incidents,” Duffy said. “We’re kind of used to making the best out of a bad situation.”

By Professional Mariner Staff