Oil Workers Survived Mexican Storm in Tiny Raft

By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO | September 16, 2011

A small, flat fiberglass raft was all 10 oil workers had to escape the leveling winds and towering waves of Tropical Storm Nate as it pounded their disabled rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Capt. Jeremy Parfait of Louisiana radioed the final word to the Mexican shore on Thursday after the storm thrashed the Trinity II liftboat so badly, one of its three stabilizing legs broke, and the boat-turned-exploration platform tottered into the raging sea:

“We’re going to lose communication. We’re evacuating.”

But as they went to deploy a sealed, inflatable life boat equipped with water, first aid and a tracking device, the high winds snatched it from the deck.

Three workers for Houston-based Geokinetics, Inc., three contractors and four Americans who made up the liftboat crew took to the rough seas in a flat, rectangular raft with an inflated perimeter, some tethered and half-submerged, grabbing onto side handles because all 10 wouldn’t fit on board.

Australian oil worker Aaron Houweling lost his grip within the first hours, likely from the force of the 12-foot (4-meters) waves and 110 mph (177 kph) winds, according to a navy admiral who oversaw the rescue operation.

Rescuers were still searching for him Wednesday.

The other nine were tossed about in their tiny raft for three days without food or water, and were carried by high winds and seas 140 miles (222 kilometers) away from the hobbled Trinity II.

Rescue crews found the raft on Sunday still carrying four men. Three more survivors were found bobbing in life jackets less than a mile (a kilometer) away after being separated from the raft the day before.

But rescuers who mounted a nearly 10,000-square-mile (25,900-square-kilometer) search also recovered two bodies, one tethered to the raft and another still buoyed by a life jacket in the open sea.

Authorities identified the dead as Americans Nicholas Reed, 31, and Craig Myers, 32, both from the Iberia, Louisiana, area, where the liftboat company Trinity Liftboat Services in based. Reed, who drowned, is the son of company owner Randy Reed. Myers died of exposure.

One survivor, Bangladeshi oil worker Kham Nadimuzzaman, also died Monday of exposure after being transported to a hospital.

Pemex identified the other six as U.S. citizens Parfait and Ted Derise, also of Louisiana; and Mexican contract workers Ruben Martinez Velasquez, Eleaquin Lopez, Luis Escobar and Ruben Lopez Villalobos.

Navy and Geokinetics representatives who gave details of the rescue wouldn’t say in which locations they were found. But they remained in a private hospital in Ciudad del Carmen on Wednesday, almost a week after an ordeal that left them dehydrated and sunburned, but mostly in good condition.

None wanted to talk immediately about what happened.

“They’re aware. Lucid, obviously shocked by what happened,” said Arioc Lopez, head of industrial security for Geokinetics, Inc. in Mexico. The U.S.-based company was on a seismic exploration mission for Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, Mexico’s state oil company.

Trinity Liftboat officials also have declined to comment so far on the tragedy.

Lopez told The Associated Press that the search began as soon as Parfait made the distress call from the Trinity II, a 94-foot (29-meter), 185-ton liftboat that that could sleep 28, was air-conditioned and had a dining room, laundry and TV lounge, according to the company website.

It could lower legs to the sea floor and then elevate itself above the water level and was being used as a recording vessel. It was in waters about 25 feet (eight meters) deep about eight miles (13 kilometers) offshore of the port of Frontera in the southeastern Mexican state of Tabasco.

Rescuers immediately sought help from Mexico’s Estado Mayor, the equivalent of the Secret Service, borrowing a Super Puma helicopter to venture into the storm, said Adm. Joaquin Esteban Garcia-Perez Silva, commander of Mexican Naval Region III. The heavier craft could withstand high winds better than the navy models.

When the helicopter reached the Trinity II later Thursday afternoon, navy units descended to the rig and found it abandoned.

A video taken from the helicopter shows the boat swaying, but afloat, hours after workers jumped into the sea.

The search that followed covered the Bay of Campeche, an oil-rich area in the southern part of the Gulf off the coast of the Mexican state of Campeche.

The admiral said that between Thursday and Sunday, navy aircraft flew 97 hours, Pemex aircraft 60 hours, and navy ships 234 hours combined.

Finally, just before noon on Sunday, a ship contracted by Pemex for the rescue located the raft with four survivors on board and a body roped to the side, while a helicopter spotted two other survivors in the water.

Within a few hours, another ship spotted one more survivor and the second body.

Family members spoke very little about what happened.

“He was afraid of sharks,” said Roman Cruz, uncle of Ruben Martinez Velasquez, who was the cook on the Trinity II.

Geokinetics is still investigating what happened in the Trinity II incident.

“Imagine: 72 hours without sleep, exhausted, without water, dehydrated and being battered by waves,” Garcia-Perez said.

“They had luck … and help,” the admiral added, gesturing toward the sky.

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