NEW ORLEANS — Oleander Benton, a cook on an oil rig that exploded off the Louisiana coast, was sitting at a laundry room table with a friend when the lights went out. Then, there was the blast.
The Deepwater Horizon platform shuddered, debris fell from the ceiling and Benton hit the floor, as she had been trained to do. She scrambled through hallways littered with rubble, following a man in a white T-shirt.
“I could not see anything but that man. He just kept on saying ‘Come this way, come that way.’ It was like he was coaching me to my lifeboat, because I couldn’t see,” she said.
She made it across the sweltering, mud-caked deck to a lifeboat – one of 115 people to safely escape the platform after the explosion a week ago. Eleven others are missing and presumed dead.
Benton, 52, recalled her tale as crews used a remote sub to try to shut off an underwater oil well that’s gushing 42,000 gallons a day from the site of the wrecked drilling platform. If crews cannot stop the leak quickly, they might need to drill another well to redirect the oil, a process that could take about two months while oil washes up along a broad stretch of shore, from the white-sand beaches of Florida’s Panhandle to the swamps of Louisiana.
The oil, which could reach shore in as little as three days, is escaping from two leaks in a drilling pipe about 5,000 feet below the surface.
Nightmares have haunted Benton since the explosion April 20. She remembers following the man who knew his way around the platform, which is about the size of two football fields. She stumbled as he led her to the deck.
“Mud was everywhere … This was mud that was shooting up from the well. It was oily mud, real oily,” she said.
The fire made the already muggy night almost unbearable. Benton’s name was checked off as she boarded a lifeboat, then there was a roll call to make sure everyone was accounted for.
“It looked like it was taking forever to get that boat in the water,” she said, but “I think that’s just because I was so anxious to go.”
Benton didn’t want to discuss her injuries, other than to say that she was bruised. Her attorney, Stephen Rue, said she was having trouble sleeping and is suffering symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome. She has not yet filed a lawsuit in the case.
As of Tuesday morning, oil that leaked from the rig site was spread over an area about 48 miles long and 80 miles wide at its widest. The borders of the spill were uneven, making it difficult to calculate how many square miles are covered, Coast Guard Petty Officer Erik Swanson said.
“Right now, the weather’s in our favor,” Swanson said, explaining that the wind was blowing the oil away from shore Tuesday.
But Swanson said the winds could shift later in the week and there was concern about oil reaching the shore.
So far, skimming vessels had collected more than 48,000 gallons of oily water, Swanson said.
“Our goal is to fight this thing as far offshore as possible,” he said.
The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP PLC.
Crews used robot submarines to activate valves in hopes of stopping the leaks, but they may not know until Tuesday if that strategy will work. BP also mobilized two rigs to drill a relief well if needed. Such a well could help redirect the oil, though it could also take weeks to complete, especially at that depth.
BP plans to collect leaking oil on the ocean bottom by lowering a large dome to capture the oil and then pumping it through pipes and hoses into a vessel on the surface, said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP Exploration and Production.
It could take up to a month to get the equipment in place.
“That system has been deployed in shallower water, but it has never been deployed at 5,000 feet of water, so we have to be careful,” he said.
The spill, moving slowly north and spreading east and west, was about 30 miles from the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast. The Coast Guard said kinks in the pipe were helping stem the flow of oil.
From the air Monday afternoon, the oil spill reached as far as the eye could see. There was little evidence of a major cleanup, with only a handful of vessels near the site of the leak.
The oil sheen was a shiny light blue color, translucent and blending with the water, but a distinct edge between the oil slick and the sea could be seen for miles.
George Crozier, oceanographer and executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said he was studying wind and ocean currents driving the oil.
He said Pensacola, Fla., is probably the eastern edge of the threatened area, though no one really knows what the effects will be.
“We’ve never seen anything like this magnitude,” he said. “The problems are going to be on the beaches themselves. That’s where it will be really visible.”
Concern Monday focused on the Chandeleur and Breton barrier islands in Louisiana, where thousands of birds are nesting.
“It’s already a fragile system. It would be devastating to see anything happen to that system,” said Mark Kulp, a University of New Orleans geologist.
Oil makes it difficult for birds to fly or float on the water’s surface. Plant life can also suffer serious harm. Whales have been spotted near the oil spill, though they did not seem to be in any distress.
The spill also threatened oyster beds in Breton Sound on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Harvesters could only watch and wait.
“That’s our main oyster-producing area,” said John Tesvich, a fourth-generation oyster farmer with Port Sulphur Fisheries Co. His company has about 4,000 acres of oyster grounds that could be affected if the spill worsens.
“Trying to move crops would be totally speculative,” Tesvich said. “You wouldn’t know where to move a crop. You might be moving a crop to a place that’s even worse.”