(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
An aerial photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico shows the burning oilrig Deepwater Horizon, which collapsed and sank after an explosion caused by an oil 'blowout'
Robin Pagnamenta, Energy Editor, and Jacqui Goddard in Miami
A team of engineers using an underwater robot was struggling last night to control one of the world’s most challenging oil spills after an explosion ripped apart and sank a rig leased by BP in the Gulf of Mexico.
As fears grew for the safety of 11 workers still missing, BP and US officials were tackling what could be a major pollution incident using booms and dispersant chemicals.
The spill is being fed by an estimated 13,000 gallons of oil and gas that were pumping every hour from a pipe running up from an oil reservoir more than 2 miles (3km) beneath the seabed.
Deepwater Horizon rig, which had been drilling for oil at the time of the explosion on Tuesday night, collapsed and sank yesterday after being engulfed by a fire that had blazed for more than 36 hours.
Guy Cantwell, a spokesman for Transocean, the Swiss company that owned the rig, said that engineers were trying to cut off the uncontrolled flow of oil using a subsea robot. He said that the robot, equipped with cameras and remote-controlled arms, was being used to try to activate a device on the seafloor, 5,000ft (1,500m) below the surface, that is designed automatically to clamp shut over the base of a pipe that connects the rig with the seabed.
The robot was being deployed remotely from a ship close to the site of the disaster, 50 miles off the coast off Louisiana. If the effort fails the only alternative is to drill a “relief well” intersecting the original well. Mud and cement could then be injected inside to cap it. Such an operation, however, could take weeks or even months.
BP, Transocean and the US Coast Guard were planning to use booms, skimmers and chemicals to control what threatens to be a huge oil spill.
US regulators pledged to begin an investigation into the accident, which appears to have been caused by a “blowout” — an uncontrolled release of gas or oil that forced its way up the well pipe and caught fire, destroying the rig.
The majority of the 126 workers on board escaped unharmed but 17 were injured and 11 remain missing. BP said that all six of its staff, who had been overseeing the operation, were safe.
Last night survivors told of their desperate attempts to escape the fire. Chad Murray, 34, the rig’s chief electrician, said that they had less than five minutes to leap from their stations or bunks and evacuate before the rig was enveloped by the fireball.
Jim Ingram said that he was getting ready for bed when everything suddenly went dark. He heard a thud that “kind of sounded like a crane operator that would have landed a load. On the second one, we knew something was wrong”.