Dead ahead through the helicopter windshield, it appears like a mirage at the hazy horizon: a city in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
A city on fire.
Just a few months ago, the site of the disaster, 42 miles from the last marsh grass at the very tip of the Mississippi River Delta, boasted a solitary drilling rig called Deepwater Horizon. Now that rig rests upside down in the mud at the bottom of the gulf, and in its place is a roaring industrial complex, an emergency operation unlike anything in the history of the petroleum industry.
More than 60 vessels are trying to capture the oil, burn it, disperse it, whatever it takes, while two giant rigs are drilling relief wells and officials keep their eyes on the weather reports, racing to kill the leaking well before a hurricane forces everyone to scatter to calmer waters.
This waterworld is hot, noisy and dangerous. Two flares create hypnotic focal points for the flotilla. The drill ship Discoverer Enterprise, parked directly on top of the well that exploded on April 20, is capturing oil from the well and burning gas separately. The other flare, larger, brighter, looking like an umbrella of fire turned on its side, shoots from a pipe on the well-servicing rig Q4000, which is burning both oil and gas.
If the weather turns violent, all this will have to be hastily disassembled. Right now there’s a storm in the southern gulf, named Alex, the first named Atlantic tropical storm of the season, but it is moving west and appears to be on a path to spare the Deepwater Horizon site.
Officials remain anxious. Forecasters say it will be a busy storm season. This makeshift city can’t ride out a major storm. The Enterprise will need up to five days of warning before gale-force winds arrive to decouple from the well that BP named Macondo, after the fictional city in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Ships and rigs will sail away, leaving the well to gush freely until they return.
Among the vessels that would have to leave are the two enormous rigs that are drilling relief wells, which are critical to killing the Macondo well. Development Driller III was the first to begin operations, and it has burrowed more than 11,000 feet below the sea floor, homing in on the blown-out well. It can already pick up magnetic signals from Macondo’s steel casing.
The second, Transocean’s Development Driller II, started later and isn’t as deep yet. It is 324 feet by 258 feet, dominated by a 228-foot derrick. It is here that a handful of journalists dropped in this weekend for a tour of disaster-response life.
“We want to get this thing done so bad — it hurts. But you can only do it at a certain pace,” said Mitchell Bullock, 61, the BP well-site leader, a job that more traditionally is known as “the company man.” As with the Deepwater Horizon, this rig is leased by BP but is largely staffed by Transocean employees.
Even though this is an emergency operation, performed under the heat lamp of global media attention, it is also business as usual. There is no sense of crisis. The people on the rig are doing what they do best: drilling a well. They’re making a hole in the bottom of the sea.
Jeremy Marts, 31, is a driller, operating out of the auxiliary drill shack. It’s air-conditioned, with a glass top, protected by steel grating, that offers a view of 149 sections of drill pipe racked to the rafters, each pipe 122 feet long, at 34 pounds per foot: heavy-duty stuff that’s ready to be linked together for the miles-long drilling operation.
“It’s just a process that takes time,” Marts said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. We’re out here, drilling a well. That’s our focus. I wake up in the morning, my focus is to keep all these guys safe for the 12 hours I’m working.”
Twelve hours on, twelve hours off — that’s the schedule. There’s foosball in the rec room. There’s a Wii. There’s TV and Internet. Two workout rooms, one for cardio, one with weights. Steak nights are Saturday and Tuesday; Friday is seafood and Sunday is fried chicken.
This is an entirely planned environment. No drinking, no drugs, smoking only in designated areas. Clothes must be clean in the accommodations areas. No oily coveralls in the mess hall. No loud noises near the sleeping compartments. A training video declares that “horseplay” is absolutely prohibited.
“You spend half your life out here. Your co-workers become like family,” said Tommy Lenoir, 46, a BP health and safety representative on the rig.
Robert Robinson, a rig safety training coordinator, calls Richmond home. His 5-year-old son, Mason, doesn’t grasp what’s going on, but his 10-year-old, Ty, knows that “Daddy’s rig is trying to stop the leak,” Robinson said. “He thinks it’s pretty cool.”
Matt Michalski, the rig’s master, is 32 and has the easygoing nature of a surfer dude. No accident, that: When he choppers back to terra firma, he beelines for the New Orleans airport and, after changing planes in Houston, is in San Diego and then is riding the Pacific waves — all in the same day.
What do fellow surfers think of what he’s doing?
“Some people are curious,” he said. “Some people have different opinions about offshore drilling than I.”
The relief wells are all-important for ending the gushing-geyser phase of the crisis. The idea is to send mud, then cement, to the root of the well, clogging the hole at the base before the rising hydrocarbons gain momentum. At the well’s bottom, the oil and gas are moving like a train easing out of the station; by the time they reach the lower pressures at the top of the well, they’re barreling along the tracks at top speed.
The endgame is tricky. No one knows the condition of the well bore deep below the gulf. It’s conceivable that the bottom of the well has eroded around the steel casing, said Charles West, a geophysicist who has consulted for the petroleum industry and worked on relief wells. If that’s the situation, he said, drilling into the casing would be “like trying to chase a strand of spaghetti around with a spoon.”
That would force the drillers to back up and aim a bit higher on the well. Finding the target is critical. The drill bit can’t turn on a dime; if it misses, it will have to be backed up for another approach.
“They got to get it right,” said Chris Wokowsky, 49, the offshore installation manager and Transocean’s top guy on the rig.
He looks relaxed, confident. This is a steady operation, literally so: You can’t even tell, moment to moment, that the rig is floating. Peer over a handrail and you can see, below the water, the white outline of giant pontoons that keep the rig afloat. Eight thrusters on the four corners continuously adjust to wind and wave to keep the rig positioned within a foot of where it is supposed to be.
A digital display on the bridge shows the distances to all the other vessels. The Enterprise is 0.45 miles away; the Q4000 is 0.63 miles; the DD3 is 0.47 miles. There are 64 ships within five miles.
Plus two robotic submarines nearly a mile below. Dean Miller is the submersible operator. “We regularly see deep-sea rays, squid, octopus,” said Miller, 33 and British. At a reporter’s request, he joysticks a sub to take a broad view of the blowout preventer on top of the well. It’s a huge structure. Intact. The riser emerges from the top. This is what these things are supposed to look like.
The tour over, the visitors return to the helipad. The chopper rises and makes a half-circle around the city on the water, the roar of the flares drowned out by the thumping of the rotors. The flight crosses the vast oil slick, which is capricious, sometimes forming vast swaths of silver-gray sheen, other times streaking the surface with red-orange tendrils. The oil is invisible from some angles; from others it goes on and on into the distance, no end in sight.