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Firefighters Battle Rig Blaze as 11 Remain Missing

The Deepwater Horizon burns in the Gulf of Mexico
Fireboats battle the blaze at the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. Source: U.S. Coast Guard/Getty Images

Eleven workers remained missing in the Gulf of Mexico as firefighters battled flames still burning after an explosion two days ago on a Transocean Ltd. drilling rig.

The U.S. Coast Guard this morning dispatched a search plane and helicopter to join two boats searching the waters overnight, Ashley Butler, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. The rig was leased by London-based BP Plc.

Workers are using an undersea remote-control vehicle to try to cut off the oil and natural gas that may be fueling the fire, said Guy Cantwell, a spokesman for Geneva-based Transocean. The nine-year-old Deepwater Horizon rig, located about 41 miles (66 kilometers) off Louisiana’s coast, exploded at 10 p.m. local time on April 20.

If rescuers conclude the 11 missing workers died in the blast, it would be the deadliest U.S. offshore rig explosion since 1968, when 11 died and 20 were injured at a platform owned by Gulf Oil Corp. The Coast Guard said they have accounted for 115 of the 126 people aboard the Transocean rig, including 17 injured who were sent to hospitals.

“When you are out there, you have to concentrate on your job,” said Dee Payne, who was working on a nearby rig when the accident happened and said he could see the flames. “You always think about it, you know -- we’re dealing with gas, with things that are explosive.”

Payne, 29, spoke to reporters in Kenner, Louisiana. He declined to say what company he worked for or which rig he was on.

More Drilling

Workers evacuated from the rig yesterday were taken to a New Orleans-area hotel in the early morning today, where security guards were posted to prevent media from entering. As rig workers began leaving, most declined to comment.

President Barack Obama last month proposed expanding offshore drilling in some areas, including off Virginia’s coast and off the western coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are 90 rigs drilling in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Eileen Angelico, spokeswoman for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, said in an e-mail yesterday.

Drilling in federal waters of the gulf provides 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, according to the Minerals Management Service -- about 31 percent of total U.S. production as of January. The region supplies 6.6 billion cubic feet of gas a day, which is about 9 percent of U.S. production.

‘Swift, Thorough Investigation’

“The U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service should conduct a swift and thorough investigation into this incident,” Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said in a statement. “It is critical that these agencies examine what went wrong and the environmental impact this incident has created.”

BP sent seven large oil-spill cleanup vessels to the scene, David Rainey, BP’s vice president for Gulf of Mexico production, said at a press conference yesterday in New Orleans.

The Coast Guard has primary jurisdiction over any potential oil spill at the site.

“The Coast Guard has the lead and we have not been asked for assistance yet,” said Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington.

If any fuel leaking from the rig makes its way into state waters, agencies in Texas or Louisiana could have jurisdiction over the spill.

“The projected movement of any anticipated spill is minimal at this point,” said Jean Kelly a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The fire is consuming any additional oil or gas that is released, she said.

Kelly didn’t know the projected potential trajectory of the spill, but said if it moves far it could end up on southwest Louisiana beaches or Texas beaches. “We’re watching it, but we have no jurisdiction in the gulf.”

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