By Michael Kunzelman
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS, La. (AP) — The company that owns an oil platform that caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico has vowed to continue searching for a second missing worker after a body was recovered in the waters near the site.
The remains of the unidentified person were found the night of Saturday, Nov. 17 by divers hired by Houston-based Black Elk Energy, Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega said. Vega said the Coast Guard would be turning over the remains to local authorities. The Coast Guard has suspended its own search.
John Hoffman, the president and CEO of Black Elk Energy, has said the body is apparently one of two Filipino crew members missing since an explosion and fire on the oil platform Friday morning. Hoffman said the body was found by a contract dive vessel.
He wrote in an e-mail Sunday morning, Nov. 18, that a second dive vessel has been brought in to speed up the search for the second missing worker.
“The workers impacted by this accident continue to be our primary focus,” Hoffman wrote.
Hoffman said the body was found close to the leg of the platform, near where the explosion occurred, in about 30 feet of water. He said the missing men were employees of oilfield contractor Grand Isle Shipyard.
Grand Isle Shipyard CEO Mark Pregeant released a statement that the company has notified the families of those involved, but was declining to release their names, according to WWL-TV in New Orleans.
Early Sunday, the Philippine Embassy in Washington said the worker whose body was recovered was Filipino, as are the worker who remains missing and four who have been hospitalized. The embassy declined to release names and expressed its condolences to the family of the dead worker.
The Coast Guard had suspended its own search earlier Saturday, Nov. 17, after 32 hours spent covering 1,400 square miles near the oil platform, located about 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La.
“We saw no signs of life. We have suspended the search … pending further development,” Vega said.
Authorities have said the blaze erupted Friday morning, Nov. 16, while workers were using a torch to cut an oil line on the platform.
Pregeant’s statement, however, said the cause of the fire and explosion is unknown and that “initial reports that a welding torch was being used at the time of the incident or that an incorrect line was cut are completely inaccurate.”
Four other workers who were severely burned remained hospitalized Saturday night. Officials at Baton Rouge General Medical Center said two men were in critical condition Saturday, Nov. 17, while two men were in serious condition. The four, being treated in a burn unit, are also employees of Grand Isle Shipyard and are from the Philippines.
After Friday’s blaze, 11 people were taken by helicopter to area hospitals or for treatment on shore by emergency medical workers.
James A. Watson, the director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said in a statement Saturday that his agency had begun “an investigation into the explosion and fire aboard a Black Elk Energy production platform offshore Louisiana.”
“BSEE is committed to determining the direct and indirect causes of the explosion and will take appropriate enforcement actions,” he said.
Grand Isle Shipyard employed 14 of the 22 workers on the platform at the time of the explosion, WWL-TV reported. A man who answered the phone at the company’s Galliano, La. office on Saturday said no one was available to comment.
Separate from the explosion, Grand Isle Shipyard is facing a lawsuit by a group of former workers from the Philippines who claim they were confined to cramped living quarters and forced to work long hours for substandard pay. The lawsuit was filed in late 2011 in a Louisiana federal court and is pending. Lawyers for the company have said the workers’ claims are false and should be dismissed.
Meanwhile, company officials said no oil was leaking from the charred platform, a relief for Gulf Coast residents still weary two years after the BP oil spill illustrated the risk that offshore drilling poses to the region’s ecosystem and economy.
Black Elk released a statement saying that the platform wasn’t operating and hadn’t been since August.
Black Elk Energy is an independent oil and gas company. The company’s website says it holds interests in properties in Texas and Louisiana waters, including 854 wells on 155 platforms. (end)