An explosion rocked an offshore oil drilling platform, sending a column of fire into the sky and touching off a frantic search at sea on Wednesday for at least 11 reported missing.
Most of the 126 workers on the rig Deepwater Horizon were believed to have escaped safely after the explosion Tuesday night, Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said.
The rig, more than 50 miles (80 kilometres) southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, was still burning Wednesday morning and was listing about 10 degrees. There was no estimate of when the flames might be out.
Helicopters and boats searched the Gulf of Mexico for any sign of the workers who had not been accounted for.
"We're hoping everyone's in a life raft," O'Berry said. The Coast Guard said Wednesday that seven workers had been critically injured.
O'Berry said many workers who escaped were being brought to land on a work boat expected to arrive Wednesday evening. When the explosion happened, the rig was drilling but was not in production, according to Greg Panagos, spokesman for its owner, Transocean Ltd in Houston.
The rig was under contract to British Petroleum (BP) PLC. BP spokesman Darren Beaudo said all BP personnel were safe but he didn't know how many BP workers had been on the rig.
Panagos said it's still too early to know what caused the explosion. "Our focus right now is on taking care of the people," he said.
O'Berry said Coast Guard environmental teams were on standby to assess any environmental damage once the fire was out.
According to Transocean's website, the Deepwater Horizon is 396 feet (120 meters) long and 256 feet (78 meters) wide. The rig was built in 2001 by Hyundai Heavy Industries Shipyard in South Korea. The site is known as the Macondo prospect, in 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) of water.
The rig is designed to operate in water depths up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) and has a maximum drill depth of about 5.5 miles (8.85 kilometers). It can accommodate a crew of up to 130.
Panagos did not know how much the rig cost to build, but said a similar rig today would run USD 600 million to USD 700 million. Transocean has 14 rigs working in the Gulf and 140 worldwide.