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For crew of doomed US rig, a night of flames and terror

The nightmare began with a geyser of mud and water that shot 300 feet into the air. Before anyone could react, gas from deep below the sea found a spark and the Deepwater Horizon was ablaze.

world Updated: May 12, 2010 13:35 IST

The nightmare began with a geyser of mud and water that shot 300 feet into the air. Before anyone could react, gas from deep below the sea found a spark and the Deepwater Horizon was ablaze.

One explosion, then a second, shook the offshore drilling rig. Louder than a jet, louder than a bomb, they threw sleeping workers from their beds and tossed men up into the air like grains of sand.

Alarms sounded, and all around workers scrambled to escape.

Flames erupted from the rig's derrick, spewing thick smoke into the air, Christopher Choy recalled in an interview with NPR radio.

"I knew we weren't going to put that out," he said. "And that was just the worst feeling in the world."

He wasn't one to be afraid of anything, but the flames terrified him.

"All that was going through my head was I'm fixing to die. This is it. We're not going to get off of here."

He wasn't the only one.

"We all were sure we were going to die," Dennis Dewayne Martinez, a rig supervisor, told the New York Times.

The flames heated the air and illuminated debris raining back down onto the platform. Workers screamed and yelled, some trying to organize an evacuation, others simply unable to bear the pain of their wounds.

Choy and a colleague rushed to try to help a crane operator who had been knocked off some stairs and fallen 50 feet below.

The man was surrounded by flames and as they tried to reach him a fireball erupted, blocking their way forward.

"It just killed me that I knew I couldn't get to him," Choy told NPR. "That's, by far, the hardest decision I've made in my life."

The scene was repeated across the rig, as men were forced to leave their friends behind and save themselves, abandoning the platform in a haphazard evacuation that very nearly went wrong.

Some of the escape boats were overcrowded, built for 60 but packed with people one on top of the other, squeezed into any available space.

The extra weight unbalanced the crafts, and in one the driver struggled to get the engine started. Those inside the lifeboat began to worry the rig would collapse on them before they could take off.

Inside, mud-caked workers nursed horrendous injuries: broken bones, blood flowing from open wounds, terrible burns. Those awoken by the blast wore little more than orange life-jackets.

They watched in agony as others who hadn't made it to the boats in time jumped into the sea below, silhouetted against the flaming rig.

"You can't see them good enough to tell if they had life jackets on or anything," Eugene Dewayne Moss told the New York Times.

Eventually the boats were lowered some 100 feet into the sea, and the crew headed for a nearby cargo ship, The Damon Bankston.

Safely aboard, a flood of emotions rushed forth from men not inclined to public displays. They wept and prayed, but no one said much as they watched their rig consumed by flames.

"It makes you sick to your stomach, just watching that knowing that you're missing guys and that they're up there somewhere," Choy said.

The men were desperate to call home, but first there were forms to fill out. The Coast Guard wanted statements about what had happened, and Choy said one man distributing forms was described as a lawyer from British Petroleum, which leased the rig. The company denies it sent lawyers to the boat.

He declined to sign the form the first time around, and he wasn't able to speak to his wife until 28 hours after the explosion.

Several hours later, representatives from Transocean, which owned the rig, wanted his initials on a form that stated he was not injured in the disaster or the evacuation.

Exhausted and desperate to go home, he signed, and now his old employer says they bear no responsibility for his nightmares and flashbacks.

"One of the things they preached to us the entire time you work there and do any kind of training is be responsible," he said. "And then the first thing they threw at me... is a paper relieving them of their responsibility."

First Published: May 12, 2010 13:31 IST