Crews search air, water for missing worker after oil rig blast

KENNER, La. (AP) - Authorities searched by air and water Monday for a contractor who disappeared when an oil and gas platform exploded on a lake near New Orleans. Seven people were injured, including three who were in critical condition, authorities said.

Company officials were not sure if any oil spilled into Lake Pontchartrain. A Coast Guard helicopter looked for the missing man and for any sign of a spill. The fire on the rig was still burning Monday morning, and authorities said they would let it burn out.

The Clovelly Oil Co. platform exploded Sunday night while maintenance was being done on the structure, sending a fireball high into the night sky, authorities and company officials said. The Kenner government Facebook page said authorities on the scene reported that cleaning chemicals had ignited on the structure, but the company said the cause of the blast was unknown. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto said the cause remained under investigation.

Residents along the shores of the lake said their homes shook about 7:15 p.m. Some reported that the air smelled of burning rubber.

"My house actually shook," Andrew Love, 32, told Times Picayune . "At first I thought it was a sonic boom or something, I had no idea what was happening."

Lopinto said there were no reports of structural damage to any homes.

Five of the injured were hospitalized with "blast-type injuries and burns," said Mike Guillot, director of East Jefferson Emergency Medical Services. Two of the three people in critical condition were in a burn unit, Guilot said.

A statement from Clovelly Oil said three oil wells near the platform were shut in at the time of the explosion and its one gas well was flowing, but was successfully shut-in shortly after the explosion. Clovelly does not know if any oil was released into the lake.

The platform is a storage and accumulation point for oil and gas from a number of wells, company spokesman Tim O'Leary said.

"It's basically an underwater storage tank. It takes oil and gas" from wells, he said. Once the tank is filled, the oil or gas is pumped into a barge and moved.

He said the four wells that feed the platform were drilled in the 1970s and are all in the lake, a brackish tidal basin that is fed both by the Gulf of Mexico and by fresh water from rivers and streams in 16 Louisiana parishes and four Mississippi counties.

Its water covers 630 square miles (1630 square kilometers) but it's generally only about 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) deep. It's 40 miles (64 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide.

The U.S. Geological Service describes it as one of America's largest estuaries and the waters support oysters, crabs and saltwater fish. There is no active drilling on the lake, according to Jean Kelly of the state environmental department.

The search has been complicated by 4 to 5 foot (1.2 to 1.5 meters) seas and stiff winds, Lopinto said.

The platform is located in Jefferson Parish. Authorities noted that the parish drinking water is safe because it is pulled from the Mississippi River.

The Coast Guard will be conducting a water quality evaluation as well as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.


Associated Press writer Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report.