2 missing, 4 burned in Gulf oil platform fire

Cutting torch sparked explosion

HOUSTON - Two people were missing and 11 were injured after an explosion and fire on an oil drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana Friday, Coast Guard officials said.

The fire, which began while workers were using a torch to cut an oil line, critically injured at least four workers who suffered burns over much of their bodies.

The Coast Guard received a mayday call at 8:42 a.m. from a shallow water platform in the Gulf of Mexico about 25 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La.

"The fire is contained and the rig employees fought the fire," said Deano Bonano, executive assistant to Councilman Chris Roberts. The fire was extinguished by 11:30 a.m.

"Our focus right now is searching for those two people who are missing," said Capt. Ed Cubanski, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. Boats and helicopters joined the search.

Twenty-six people were on the rig at the time of the fire. Eleven people were airlifted to hospitals. At least four were hospitalized with critical burns, but the extent of the injuries was not released.

Contract construction workers were using an acetylene torch to cut a 3-inch line and the torch sparked the explosion, according to officials.

"The line that was cut was supposed to be cut with a cold-cutting device, a non-sparking device. Apparently the crew used a cutting torch," said John Hoffman, president and CEO of Black Elk Energy. "If you're going to use a cutting torch, you use completely different procedures."

Oil industry expert Bob Cavnar agreed.

"When you are going to cut a line that has live oil in it, you block that line off," Cavnar said. "You tag it to show that it's off, then you clean that line either with steam or some other kind of cleaning agent before you cut into it with a torch."

Hoffman said the crew was doing some construction work before the platform was scheduled to come back online later this month.

The platform is not drilling at a deepwater site like the Macondo well that blew out in 2010. That blowout led to an explosion that killed 11 workers and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

"This is a shallow water rig and much easier to cap off," Bonano.

The Coast Guard said the area is 56 feet deep.

"The maximum amount of product that could have been in that line was 75 gallons. It was a non-production platform at the time," Cubanski said. "As of right now, they are reporting an oil sheen one-half mile long by 200 yards."

Officials said the platform appeared to be structurally sound.

The rig is a production platform owned by Black Elk Energy, headquartered in Houston. Black Elk Energy's website said it holds interests in properties in Texas and Louisiana waters, including 854 wells on 155 platforms. Black Elk Energy is a relatively new oil and gas company, founded in 2007. Local 2 Investigates checked the company's safety record and found only one previous accident, according to the Department of the Interior.

In February 2011, a fire started on a platform operated by Black Elk Energy, located more than 100 miles off the Texas coast south of High Island. It started in an old battery charging station that platform workers thought had been disabled. Investigators concluded the charging station was still hooked up and one of the batteries shorted out. Battery fluid caught fire, scorching the surrounding area. The fire was put out with handheld extinguishers and there were no injuries or evacuations. After the accident, Black Elk Energy inspected all batteries being used on the platform and made changes to how they were stored.

The fire actually started in an area of the platform leased by a third party. Investigators documented less than $1,000 in damage and there were no penalties or government sanctions levied against the company.

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