11 Workers Missing After Offshore Oil Rig Explodes

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Flames are still shooting from an offshore oil rig that was rocked by an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday night. A supply boat has reached the Louisiana shore carrying survivors. Coast Guard rescuers are combing the water for signs of 11 missing workers.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

Unidentified Man: Take it up back slowly. Prepare to take the load. Okay, we're taking the load. Survivors clear...

INSKEEP: That's the sound of a Coast Guard rescue team inside a helicopter, pulling oil workers up off of a burning rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Rescuers are still looking for 11 missing oil workers this morning. They've not been seen since the massive drilling rig that they were on exploded and caught fire Tuesday night. About 100 workers picked up by boat reached shore early today, but the Coast Guard says the rig continues to burn, hampering the search for missing workers.

Eileen Fleming of member station WWNO reports from New Orleans.

EILEEN FLEMING: The accident happened about 40 miles offshore from Venice, Louisiana. The explosion rocked the rig, sending tall sheets of orange flame high into the nighttime sky. Coast Guard Senior Chief Mike O'Berry says it's a difficult operation.

MIKE O: It is a very dramatic fire. There's been some imagery that's come back that's out there, and you can see it's, you know, big plumes of fire smoke. You can actually see it from satellite imagery.

FLEMING: The rig is named the deep water horizon, and it's big - about 400 feet long and 250 feet wide. It's a semi-submersible and floats over a drilling site, but it's not actually anchored to the sea floor. The rig is owned by Transocean of Houston and contracted to BP. Transocean operates the largest drilling fleet in the world.

Company Vice President Adrian Rose says it wasn't pumping oil when the accident happened, and they don't know yet what went wrong.

ADRIAN ROSE: The operation on the rig immediately prior to the incident was running and cementing a production casing. This was conducted according to plan with appropriate testing completed and with no indication of any problems.

FLEMING: Transocean says it has no plans to halt work at any of its 140 global rigs. The Deepwater Horizon is worth an estimated $600 million, and last year it set a drilling record of 35,000 feet.

At a late afternoon news conference in New Orleans, Deputy Secretary David Hayes of the Interior Department said the rig had passed all inspections.

DAVID HAYES: Preliminary information suggests this rig went into service in January of this year, and there have been three inspections already of the rig this year, the latest one being within the month.

FLEMING: The Federal Minerals Management Service tracks safety issues on the industry. Statistics on its Web site show about 400 incidents on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006, but the vast majority of those were minor. Before Tuesday, only one accident was deemed major, with damages exceeding a million dollars. This incident comes just after the Obama administration agreed to open more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and in the waters north of Alaska.

Industry analyst Scott Burk of Oppenheimer doesn't expect this explosion to alter the political debate about drilling.

SCOTT BURK: The good thing about being offshore is that it's far enough away that you're not going to be polluting somebody's backyard, or it's not causing any potential danger to a neighborhood or anything like that. So politically, I think the fallout should be relatively contained.

FLEMING: Burk says BP was paying about $1 million every other day for this exploration project. In the meantime, the Coast Guard is monitoring the environmental damage and has ships in place to help contain any oil that might spill.

For NPR News, I'm Eileen Fleming, in New Orleans.

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