Search ended for missing workers after US oil rig blast

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, Apr 24 (AFP) – The US Coast Guard has called off a search for 11 workers who went missing and are now presumed dead after a blast tore through an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico earlier in the week.

Crews were toiling to clean up the mess left by the rig, which finally sank Thursday after an apparent blowout caused an explosion and fire. But officials said no oil was leaking from the collapsed structure, easing fears of an environmental disaster.

Coast Guard Eighth District commander Rear Admiral Mary Landry said the missing workers likely never made it off the drilling platform during the explosion and raging fire late Tuesday.

US Coast Guard image shows fire boats battling the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. AFP photo

"The time of reasonable expectation of survivability has passed," Landry said about the workers, whose names were withheld at the discretion of their families. The 11 were from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Coast Guard helicopters, planes and boats frantically searched a large area around the platform site off the southern US coast for three days, but found no sign of those missing.

The other 115 workers onboard the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible rig at the time of the explosion made it to safety, although 17 were airlifted to hospital after suffering injuries.

Only two remained in hospital, with the most seriously injured worker due to be released next week, Landry said.

The Coast Guard warned the disaster had the potential to become "a major oil spill."

But it remained unclear just how much oil had spilled from the rig, owned by Transocean Ltd. and under contract to British oil giant BP. Investigations into the exact cause of the accident are ongoing.

Company officials did not say Friday how they proposed to plug the well.

"Essentially, they're trying to put a cork in a bottle of champagne," said Richard Metcalf, a spokesperson for the pro-industry Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association.

A thin oil sheen two miles (three kilometers) wide by eight miles (13 km) long covered the waters, Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler told AFP.

It would take nine days for the sheen to reach the Louisiana coast, according to a Coast Guard projection.

However "at the rate we're going we don't expect it to hit land," said Coast Guard spokesman Casey Baker.

Although there appeared to be no oil leaking at the water's surface or from a well head on the ocean floor, crews were closely monitoring the platform for any further crude oil spill, Landry said.

BP dispatched a fleet of boats, including 32 vessels to clean up the spill and remotely operated vehicles to monitor the well, in a bid to keep environmental damage in check.

Officials meanwhile warned the accident could become the worst in the United States since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill, considered one of the worst-ever man-made environmental disasters.

That spill poured nearly 11 million gallons (41 million liters) of crude into Alaska's Prince William Sound, devastating some 750 miles of its once-pristine shores.

"It appears there is no oil coming out of the well at this time," Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said after an inspection of the sunken offshore oil rig. "We're not out of the woods yet but that is some positive news."

Officials acknowledged the surface oil slick had grown, but said authorities were working to prevent the oil from reaching shore in the Gulf states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Experts have warned that any oil spilled from the huge drilling rig that sank 45 miles (70 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, could threaten fragile Gulf coast ecosystems, already stressed by hurricanes and coastal erosion.

President Barack Obama said the federal response to the disastrous spill "was being treated as the number one priority."

Some 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel were on board the platform before the blast, and it had been drilling 8,000 barrels, or 336,000 gallons, of oil a day, according to officials.

O'Berry said US authorities deployed several oil-skimming vessels to try to limit the pollution, and the Coast Guard had sent a mini-submarine equipped with cameras to determine the oil flow.

If the spill cannot be contained, Louisiana's coast would be at risk, with wild birds, breeding grounds for shrimp and oyster beds threatened by the slick.

Before the rig sank, oil fires raged for more than a day and a half following a spectacular explosion that sent huge balls of flame leaping into the night sky.

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