NEW ORLEANS – The Coast Guard was searching Friday for two workers missing after fire erupted on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, sending a plume of black smoke into the air reminiscent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that transformed the oil industry and life along the coast.
The fire, which began while workers were using a torch to cut an oil line, critically injured at least four workers who had burns over much of their bodies.
The images were eerily similar to the massive oil spill that killed 11 workers and took months to bring under control. It came a day after BP agreed to plead guilty to a raft of charges in the 2010 spill and pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties.
There were a few important differences with the Deepwater Horizon explosion: Friday’s fire was put out within hours, rather than burning for more than a day and causing the rig to collapse and sink. It’s a production platform in shallow water, rather than an exploratory drilling rig looking for new oil on the seafloor almost a mile deep.
Still, the accident was a vivid reminder of the dangerous business of offshore drilling and the risk it poses to the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem and shoreline.
A sheen of oil about a half-mile long and 200 yards wide was reported on the Gulf surface, but officials believe it came from residual oil on the platform.
“It’s not going to be an uncontrolled discharge from everything we’re getting right now,” Coast Guard Capt. Ed Cubanski said.
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash said late Friday that monitoring continues to show no oil is coming from the well.
Eleven people were taken by helicopter to hospitals or for treatment on shore by emergency medical workers.
Taslin Alfonzo, spokeswoman for West Jefferson Medical Center in suburban New Orleans, said four injured workers arrived in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns over much of their bodies.
Two were sent by ambulance to the burn center at Baton Rouge General Medical Center. Two others were to be sent later.
A spokeswoman for Terrebonne General Medical Center in Houma said the hospital was treating two workers who were in good condition. Several other workers were taken to Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Cut Off. None was listed in critical condition, according to a spokeswoman.
The production platform owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy is about 25 miles southeast of Grand Isle, on the western side of the Mississippi River delta.