US coast guard searches for 2 oil rig workers in blast

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In this aerial photograph, a supply vessel moves near an oil rig damaged by an explosion and fire, Friday in the Gulf of Mexico about 25 miles southeast of Grand Isle, Louisiana. AP

CHICAGO — The US Coast Guard searched the waters off Louisiana late Friday for two oil rig workers who remained unaccounted for after an explosion and fire on an oil drilling platform off the coast.

The blast on the rig in the Gulf of Mexico injured 11 people, but did not cause a major spill, the Coast Guard said.

Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega told Agence France-Presse late Friday that an 87-foot (27-meter) long cutter, the Razorbill, with 10 crew members on board, was dispatched to the area where the explosion took place and would spend the night patrolling the Gulf waters searching for the missing workers.

Other Coast Guard assets, including helicopters, aircraft and a second patrol boat, the Pelican, would resume the search early Saturday, he said.

The incident comes a day after British energy giant BP reached a deal with the US government to settle criminal charges over the devastating 2010 oil spill that began with an explosion on an offshore rig.

“We don’t foresee any major environmental impact from this,” Coast Guard spokesman Ensign Glenn Sanchez told AFP. “This was a non-functioning rig. It’s not like they were pumping oil.”

Authorities said the fire was extinguished about two hours after the explosion.

Coast Guard Lieutenant Cheryl Hickey, command duty officer for the New Orleans sector, said 11 people were flown by helicopter to area hospitals.

While a thin oil slick was seen floating in the waters near the rig, it was likely from small amounts of oil stored on the platform. The blaze began during maintenance work when the crew was cutting through a pipe.

It was soon extinguished and the rig appears to be “structurally sound,” incident commander Ed Cubanski told a news conference.

The Coast Guard could not provide details on the seriousness of the injuries but local media reported that four of the workers were in critical condition with serious burns.

US networks showed dramatic images of thick black smoke billowing up from the platform.

There were 22 people on board when the explosion rocked the rig operated by Houston-based Black Elk Energy shortly before 9 am (1500 GMT), Sanchez said.

Black Elk Energy was not immediately available to comment but posted a message on its website saying “our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted.”

BP agreed Thursday to pay a record $4.5 billion in US fines for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and pleaded guilty to 14 counts including felony manslaughter in the deaths of 11 workers.

The deadly blast aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig unleashed the biggest marine oil spill in the industry’s history and the worst environmental disaster to strike the United States.

It took 87 days to cap BP’s runaway Macondo well, 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the water surface as it spewed some 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and blackened beaches in five states.

The disaster led to major regulatory reforms, but critics say the offshore oil industry has not worked hard enough to improve its safety record.

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