LYNN NEARY, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Almost three weeks since an oil rig explosion ruptured a well in the Gulf of Mexico, it is still spewing an estimated 200,000 gallons of oil a day.
NEARY: This past weekend, British Petroleum was hoping to get the leak under control. BP wanted to put a 40-foot dome over the leak, but an icy mixture of gas and water filled it up as it was being lowered to the sea floor, a mile under water. BP is now scrambling to come up with another way to stop the oil from gushing into the gulf.
MONTAGNE: The explosion that caused the leak on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 people. Now, we're going to hear from a surviving crew member. One who tells the story of the chaos on the night of the explosion. He talks of both panic and heroism of the men who tried but couldn't save friends caught in the flames, and of the rush for an overcrowded life boat that wouldn't start as some men jumped into the Gulf to get away from the fire. From NPR's investigative unit, correspondent Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Christopher Choy was one of the youngest and newest members of the crew of the Deepwater Horizon. He got hired in time to work on the crew that, last September, set the record for drilling the deepest oil and gas well anywhere in the world. He liked those bragging rights. He liked the rhythms of the rig, the close friendships he made with the men he lived with and worked with on 12-hour shifts. He didn't even mind working outside in the blazing heat of summer or the cold whipping winds of winter.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER CHOY: It's different than anything else you ever do in your life. I mean, it's just a big box out in the water, floating around. I mean, it's pretty cool to sit out there. A lot of people that work land don't get to see the sunsets and sunrises that the guys that work out on offshore platforms get to see.
SHAPIRO: Choy is 23, a wiry young Texas. He wears a red western shirt and blue jeans with a big silver belt buckle. He's holding hands with his wife Monica. They got married last October. On his left hand is a wedding ring. A replacement for the original that's now on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.
Another thing Chris Choy liked about working on the rigs was the money. Even in the lowest job as a roustabout, hooking up the crane ball, moving heavy equipment and other physical work, he figured he can make about $60,000 in a year. Chris and Monica were saving to buy a house.
There's another part of a roustabout's job. He's on the fire team when there's an emergency. And it was around 10 o'clock the night of April 20th, when one explosion, and then a louder one, made him sit straight up in his bed.
Mr. CHOY: And it just shook the whole rig. I mean, that's as close as I figure an earthquake would be. I've never been in one. It lasted for several seconds. When it was over the - they started setting off the fire alarms and they make an announcement that we had a fire. They were screaming, you know, fire, fire, fire. This is not a drill. Go to your stations. This is not a drill.
SHAPIRO: Choy scrambled to put on his boots and fire gear. But when he ran through the dark smoky halls and got to his fire station he was alone.
Mr. CHOY: First thing I thought was - I said, Well, maybe I misheard the announcement. You know, I just woke up. Maybe I didn't hear the announcement right. Maybe they just said to abandon ship. Because I'd looked - when I looked up I saw the flames coming out of the derrick.
SHAPIRO: The flames shot hundreds of feet in the air.
Mr. CHOY: I immediately - I knew we weren't going to put that out. And that was just the worst feeling in the world. I've never been a person to be scared of anything. I mean, the guys I work with they - I ain't scared of anything. I was scared to death right then. I mean, I just - that's all that was going through my head was I'm fixing to die. This is it. We're not going to get off of here.
SHAPIRO: Against the dark sky, orange flames illuminated part of the rig blown away by the explosion and fire. Buckets, metal grating, hammers and other debris were raining down. Choy ran to a second fire station, where he says, for the first time, he saw someone else - the ship's chief mate Dave Young.
He was yelling. A popular crane operation was trouble. He'd been blown off the stairs to the crane and fallen some 50 feet below. There was fire burning around him. The chief mate and Choy tried to reach him, but a fire ball erupted and blocked their path.
Mr. CHOY: It just killed me that I knew I couldn't get to him. That's probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my - and the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life was I either can go over there and, you know, I might not make it back. That's, by far, the hardest decision I've made in my life, that we had to leave that and leave him there.
SHAPIRO: The fire was leaping and spreading.
Mr. CHOY: I mean, you ever stood next to a bon fire. I mean, you imagine when it's 500 foot tall, 400, 500 feet high, and you're 20 feet from it. It was pretty hot. It's really hard to talk about. Im sorry.
SHAPIRO: Chris Choy would reach the life capsule on the deck below and there he found chaos. Men, including some with broken bones, open wounds and burning flesh pushed onto the lifeboat. It's an enclosed fiberglass capsule and the extra weight made the capsule unbalanced and at risk of tipping over.
Mr. CHOY: I want to say it's about 60 people that can fit in one. But I know that one, the one I was in was way overcrowded. Every seat was filled on it and there was people all crowded up around the door. When you come in they were just piled on top of each other trying to get in it.
SHAPIRO: Then the driver couldnt get the lifeboat engine started to lower it into the water. The lifeboat was supposed to save them but now it was looking like a hot and smoky tomb. Choy had seen other men jump off the rig, some heights from 40 feet or more above the dark water. They had jumped to get away from the heat of the flames. Now, Choy thought about jumping too.
Mr. CHOY: I took my seatbelt back off. I was like, Im fixing to jump. I said if they can't get the motor started, I'm not fixing to burn up, you know, in a life capsule.
SHAPIRO: But there were many heroic men that night and some of them got up to work on the engine.
Mr. CHOY: I dont know what they did but there was the guy that does a lot of the maintenance with them and stuff. He was on the boat. He got up and got it cranked.
SHAPIRO: The lifeboat lowered 40 feet to the water. Still, in the thick smoke the men couldn't tell if the lifeboat cable had unhooked from the rig. If it hadn't, the capsule might flip over. Another man unlatched the door and climbed outside in the heat and smoke to check. The cable was free but there was still danger.
Mr. CHOY: And there was a couple people, you know, yelling, trying to get everybody to calm down and just, you know, stay as calm as we could so everybody could hear, you know, what we needed to do. Some people just refused to do it and they just kept screaming, you know: The derricks fixing to fall. Hollering, cussing: We've got to get out of here.
SHAPIRO: They reached a supply ship that was nearby, the Damon Bankston. The injured were pulled and carried up a rope ladder to the ship. A second lifeboat arrived. Two more lifeboats, both empty, were on fire drifting away on the water.
Men who'd jumped off the rig were rescued by fishing boats and other craft on the water and brought to the Bankston. Roll was called to count the men. Eleven were missing out of the 127 who'd been on board the Deepwater Horizon. Then, from the Bankston, Chris Choy and the other survivors watched, scared, cold and blank, as the Deepwater Horizon continued to burn.
They saw the metal derrick melt from the heat, droop over and bend into the water.
Mr. CHOY: That was hard. We sat there for probably six or seven hours and watched the rig burn. It makes you sick to your stomach, just watching that knowing that you're missing guys and that they're up there somewhere, not knowing if they're alive or dead or if they jumped off and somebody's looking for them in a boat.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Houston.
MONTAGNE: And our story continues tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can see parts of Joe Shapiro's interview with Christopher Choy tonight on "PBS NewsHour." And to see photographs and a timeline of events, go to NPR.org.
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