Steffy: Rig disaster’s heartache shadows holiday joy

FERRIDAY, La. – Homes in this community on the banks of the Mississippi, like those in many towns this time of year, are festooned with multicolored lights and other trappings of the season.

Behind decorations, though, this area lives with the lingering scars of the country’s worst offshore oil disaster. The joys of the holidays can’t remove the heartache and struggle that persists for many of the 115 survivors, their families, and those who lost loved ones aboard the Deepwater Horizon in April 2010.

One of the 11 victims was from here, and three others lived within a 60-mile radius. So do many of the 17 injured workers, some of whom are still struggling to recover from the accident.

For young men from this rugged swatch of river bottom farmland, the offshore energy industry offers a chance to get out of the fields and make a six-figure income without a college degree that many can’t afford. Life here tends to flow in two-week cycles defined by offshore hitches. When workers come back from a fortnight at sea, many embrace the area’s most popular pastimes – hunting and fishing – before returning to their floating homes away from home.

For 15 years, that was the routine for Chad Murray as well, culminating in his job as chief electrician aboard the Deepwater Horizon, a state-of-the-art offshore rig owned by the world’s largest drilling company, Transocean. That changed with the disaster 20 months ago.

Chad’s father, Stanley Murray, who lives in nearby Monterey, vividly recalls the 6:30 a.m. phone call the morning after the rig exploded. It didn’t come from Chad’s employer, rig owner Transocean. It was from Stanley’s cousin, a contractor who’d left the rig in the afternoon before the explosion and heard about the disaster from other co-workers.

No one on land knew if Chad, who was then 35, was alive. Information was scant, and calls to Transocean didn’t yield any information.

“I didn’t know anything,” Stanley said. “It was devastating.”

What he was able to learn was gleaned from the tight-knit network of offshore workers in the surrounding area. Little by little, Stanley and his wife, Toni, began to get bits of information. They heard that Chad was alive, and that he’d helped save another crewman, Wyman Wheeler, who also lived in Monterey. But they still didn’t know if Chad was injured.

As the day wore on, a message on a Transocean hotline told family members to go to a hotel in Kenner, outside New Orleans, to wait for loved ones to arrive.

Finally, that evening, Stanley and Toni got a call from Chad. He was aboard a supply boat that had been next to the rig and was pressed into rescue duty. Another rig worker escaped the disaster with a cellphone that still worked, and as the ship got close to shore, the phone caught a signal. Chad told his parents he was OK.

“That was the greatest moment,” Toni said. “I just wanted to throw my arms around him.”

She would have to wait a while.

It took the Deepwater Horizon survivors 30 hours to make it to shore. The boat that rescued them had been ordered by the Coast Guard to stay in position, at the rig site, in case other survivors were found. Crew members stood on deck and watched as flames engulfed the rig.

“It was like standing in your driveway and watching your house burn,” Chad recalled.

The boat took its time getting to shore. Even then, delays persisted. When they arrived, the crew was ordered to take drug tests before being taken to the hotel. Some were given documents to sign stating they were uninjured, but Chad refused to sign anything. Once they arrived at the hotel, they were given rooms and told to rest, he said.

Chad wasn’t interested in resting. He wanted to see his daughter, Maddy, who was then 5. He took a shower, and gave Toni the hug for which she’d been waiting. They drove to Houma, where Chad had parked his truck before beginning his hitch.

As they pulled into the parking lot, he realized his keys had been lost on the rig. His parents drove him to a Chevrolet dealership to see if they could make a key, but his identification had also been lost in the accident. Exhausted, Chad pleaded with the service manager. He explained he was a crewman on the rig that had exploded, and he just wanted to get home to see his little girl.

Perhaps in Chicago or New York or even Houston, the story would have been met with a shrug of indifference. But in Houma, where helicopters leave hourly for one rig or another, it struck a chord. The dealership made him a key.

It’s about a three-hour drive from Houma to here, but for Chad Murray, the journey back from the Deepwater Horizon has taken much longer. The first few weeks were especially difficult, Toni recalls, but nothing like the ordeal of the first few hours.

“They put the families through a lot of unnecessary heartache,” she said.

For many of those touched by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, the heartache didn’t stop when the disaster faded from the headlines. It lingers despite the advance of time, the changing of the season and even the warm glow of Christmas lights.

Loren Steffy is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at loren.steffy@chron.com. His blog is at http://blogs.chron.com/lorensteffy. Follow him on his Facebook fan page and on Twitter at twitter.com/lsteffy.

1 Comment

  1. tboyinhouston

    “The boat took its time getting to shore. Even then, delays persisted. When they arrived, the crew was ordered to take drug tests before being taken to the hotel. Some were given documents to sign stating they were uninjured, but Chad refused to sign anything. Once they arrived at the hotel, they were given rooms and told to rest, he said.”
    —————————————
    Corporations always do the right thing don’t they? A rig exploded and people died and they want the survivors to take a drug test as soon as they hit shore. Then they are asked to sign something. Wisely he did not. He should have refused the drug test as well on principal. A corporation will look for any reason to avoid paying a claim for their negligence, any reason at all.

    #1