PORT FOURCHON, La. – Life on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has come a long way since the black gold was discovered underwater here 60 years ago.
Living for weeks on a platform the size of two football fields some 50 miles from the mainland can be comfortable and cushy, with good pay, catered cafeterias serving steak and spicy Cajun, lounges with pool tables and even mini movie theaters. At other times, it’s a water world of hot metal, cramped sleeping quarters and skin-burning sun.
The hardest part is simply being away from family.
Karl Kleppinger Jr., an unflappable Desert Storm veteran who spent more than 10 years working on oil rigs, was a dedicated floorman who made about $75,000 a year working off the Louisiana coast on the Deepwater Horizon, which erupted into a giant fireball Tuesday night. He was among 11 workers presumed dead after Coast Guard officials suspended their search Friday, saying they believed the workers never made it off the state-of-the-art semisubmersible platform.
Kleppinger, 38, worked near the drilling, at the heart of the operation. He had been away from his family for about three weeks when he made his nightly call home just before the blast, but the long-distance banter was different this time, said his wife, Tracy.
“He couldn’t get home soon enough this time. I don’t know why,” she said. “I can’t explain, there was this feeling that things were bad. It was a string of ‘I love yous, I need you home.’ That basically was the final words to each other.”
The accident was one of the worst oil rig disasters in the Gulf in decades.
The tragedy brought even more attention to safety for an industry known for its dangers, whether it’s the helicopter ride to the platform or working on the rig itself.
“You could know how long someone had been in the oil industry by how many digits were missing,” said Windell Curole, a Lafourche Parish levee manager whose father raised the family with the sweat of long days on oil rigs. “Back then, it was wildcatting in the truest sense. Crews didn’t eat lunch they worked so hard.”
There have been dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries over the last several years, convincing the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which oversees the industry, that new safety procedures aimed at preventing human error were needed. The new rules are still being developed.
Companies say they go to great lengths to make life on the Gulf comfortable and safe. And officials with Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater and was under contract by oil giant BP, point to the other 115 crew members who safely made it off the platform as evidence.
Bud Danenberger, former offshore regulations chief at the Minerals Management Service, said safety training is ingrained in the industry.
“They have a very good safety record. That’s why this is disturbing. It reflects poorly on everybody,” Danenberger said.
About 35,000 people work in the Gulf each day, and most do it for the paycheck.
“I don’t think many people fall in love with it. It’s the good money,” said Kenneth Cox, a 31-year-old offshore worker from Trinidad who was at a truck stop in Port Fourchon during a stint on land last week.
The workers come from all over. They’re from southern farm towns, northern industrial cities and foreign countries.
“We get guys from north Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and as far away as Detroit through here,” said Virgil Allen, who oversees “Mr. Charlie,” a retired drilling rig in Morgan City where companies train new workers for offshore work. The students sleep in bunks four to a room, eat meals on offshore schedules and are tested for drugs – experiences they’ll have to endure on the water.
Like other industries, life on the rigs has evolved with machinery and technology, preserving a few more fingers along the way.
“You could be sitting in a captain’s seat with two joysticks and that’s your job,” Allen said of some tasks.
Still, the strain of weeks from land and family takes a toll. On Tuesday night, when Kleppinger called his wife, they talked about how he would be ashore in the morning.
“ ‘Baby, I will be there in a couple of hours, I’ll be home,’ ” Tracy recalled the conversation.
Despite the repeated separation, Karl stuck with his job. He needed the money to help care for his son. Transocean treated him well, promoting the former Army Ranger, who was a quick study of the hand signals, tools and cables that go with offshore work.