Deepwater horizon tragedy through the eyes of one victim’s family
He wasn’t supposed to be on the rig.
“It wasn’t “his” rig to begin with,” Becky Manuel, his ex-wife and mother of their three daughters, told the IN in an exclusive interview. “Blair had worked the Thunderhorse and the Holstein, but he had never been on the Deepwater Horizon well.”
Blair Manuel, 56, was known on the rigs as “Papa Bear.” He had a huge smile and such warmth that he reminded everyone who knew him of Santa Claus. He loved his LSU Tigers and had both football and baseball season tickets. Even more than his beloved Tigers he loved his daughters.
The father of Kelli, Jessica and Ashley was one of the 11 men killed on April 20 in the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, a floating oil drilling platform 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.
April 20 was a momentous day for British Petroleum and the 126 riggers, contractors and support personnel on the rig. Manuel and others were busy setting the cement seal at the well head, which was 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. Once the seal was set the Deepwater Horizon floating rig would move on. The exploratory well would become a full production well.
HE HAD THE WORLD BY THE ARM.
“Blair had the world by the arm,” Becky Manuel told the IN. “Everything was going his way.”
Blair and Becky grew up in Eunice, La., a happy little town of less than 13,000 people set in the heart of the Cajun plains between Lafayette and Lake Charles.
On Saturday mornings, locals crowd Eunice Superette & Slaughterhouse for fresh boudin. Pensacola has Joe Patti’s Seafood where locals and tourists line up for fresh seafood. Eunice has the Slaughterhouse.
In the center of town is a statue dedicated to the town’s namesake. Eunice was the wife of the first mayor, and she stands proudly in a Victorian dress and hat like a Cajun Mary Poppins.
The business district that competes with Walmart located on Hwy 190 outside of town now has the proverbial trendy coffee house complete with wi-fi—the only wi-fi in Eunice—and even more interesting, the completely one-of-a-kind “Nutcracker Museum,” a storefront that boasts the world’s largest collection of nutcrackers. Mayor Bob, who everybody believes is a little crazy, donated the electricity and the abandoned storefront —someone named Tiffany had been doing electrolysis there but cleared out for some reason.
On Saturday nights the locals head next door to the Liberty Theatre for the best Cajun and Zydeco musicians in Louisiana. There is a Cajun music souvenir shop selling CDs and LSU regalia. Behind the counter the owner’s wife keeps a sewing machine and spends her spare time making Mardi Gras costumes for everyone in town.
The town paper, The Eunice News, printed the photos of all 138 graduates of Eunice High School class of 2010, and they had a huge party at the Knights of Columbus Hall to celebrate. Many of the two dozen people in line at the Slaughterhouse were there buying hot boudin, Cajun sausage made from a pork rice dressing stuffed into pork casings, to take the edge off the hangover from the party.
With its familiar routines and sometimes quirky characters, Eunice could be any small town in America. The thing that makes Eunice different is the rigs.
Everybody in town has some connection to the rigs. And most of those connections, you realize very quickly, are connections weighted by love. Everybody has a Daddy, a husband, a brother, a boyfriend, a cousin or a best friend going out to the rig, and hopefully…after a long six or eight weeks coming back.
The women are used to it. But after a couple of weeks, they miss them and start anticipating their men coming home. And they do worry. Accidents happen perhaps more than most people safely on shore know.
Most Americans never give the offshore rigs a second thought. But the wives and the parents and the girlfriends live with it every day. They don’t complain. The money is too good—workers with no college degrees can make over $100,000 a year. Nowhere else could these men earn these wages or have so much free time. It is a give and take. So they don’t complain or dwell on it.
Blair Manuel was a citizen of Eunice. He had been a football star for the Eunice High Bobcats and president of the Future Farmers of America. Blair and Becky married after high school. He served on the parish council of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and was the president of the Eunice Jaycees. The couple divorced in 1993 but stayed friends, tied together by their love for their three daughters. Becky stayed in Eunice, where she is a first grade teacher. Blair moved to nearby Lafayette.
HE LIKED WORKING THE RIGS.
He had gone out to the rigs around a dozen years ago when his farm failed. He needed work but it was not desperation that made him stay. From the very start Blair Manuel liked working the rigs.
“His family was a farming family,” said Becky. “When the farm went downhill, Blair was able to get a foot in the door at M-I Swaco.”
M-I Swaco is a Houston-based supplier of drilling fluid systems for oil rigs. According to its website, M-I Swaco systems optimize wellbore productivity, maximize production rates, and safely manage waste volumes generated in both drilling and production operations. The company employs about 13,000 people in over 400 service locations around the world, including Deepwater Horizon.
Blair was a “mud engineer,” a nickname for the drilling fluids engineer who is responsible for ensuring the properties of the drilling fluid, also known as drilling mud, are within designed specifications.
“Blair was like Santa Claus,” Becky told the IN, “especially the last 12 to 13 years. His whole life had turned around. He was happy making good money, had found someone to share his life with and had strengthened the bond with his girls.”
He lived near all three of his girls in Lafayette. He walked two, Kelli and Jessica, down the aisle at their weddings. Kelli Manuel Taquino, 36, is a nurse. Jessica Manuel Manchester, 31, is a phlebotomist and manages blood drives for United Blood Services. The youngest, Ashley, 29, manages the Hub City Diner in Lafayette and lived with her father in his house.
Blair was engaged to marry Melinda Becnel of St. Amant, La. in July. It was Becnel’s grandson who gave him the nickname “Bear” because he had trouble saying “Blair.” His co-workers turned it into “Papa Bear.”
“Blair wasn’t supposed to be on the rig,” Becky said. “It’s my understanding that he was due to be off at 5 p.m. the weekend before the accident, but something happened with his replacement and he agreed to stay until Tuesday.”
Blair liked working offshore. When his younger brother Jamie joined M-I Swaco, Blair had the option of taking a desk job with the company in Houston. He chose to continue working in the Gulf of Mexico to stay close to his girls. Blair let Jamie take the Houston position.
According to Becky, Blair would always take his daughters out to dinner when he came off the rig. He would talk with each of them two or three times a week. The rig dispatcher knew the girls’ voices because they called so often that she didn’t have to ask who they were when they called and would pass them through to their father.
HELP ME PASS THE TIME.
The day of the explosion Blair was set to leave at 5 p.m. but had to stay a little longer because of problems with the well tests.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce Inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast Oil Spill Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said in his opening statement at the inquiry that the well did pass positive pressure tests, but there is evidence that it may not have passed crucial negative pressure tests. According to a senior BP official, significant pressure discrepancies were observed in at least two of these tests, which were conducted just hours before the explosion. These discrepancies are what may have kept Blair at Deepwater Horizon beyond his scheduled 5 p.m. departure.
By 7 p.m. Blair had completed his work and was waiting for final clearance for him to leave. He talked on the phone with Kelli for about forty minutes, asking her to help him pass the time. Blair had tickets to the LSU Tigers weekend baseball series against Ole Miss.
Less than three hours later, a methane gas bubble erupted from the well head, rocketed up the drill pipe’s sheath and exploded on the deck of Deepwater Horizon. Blair was one of the 11 men that went missing.
It was the men on the rigs that knew first. They knew before the news crews were out in helicopters taping the flames, before the explosion hit the headlines. They heard there was a floater burning in the Gulf just off of Venice.
Deepwater Horizon was a “floater.” The drilling there is so deep, it floats on big pontoons and is anchored over the well. Because no one, not even the oil men, knew immediately what well it was, they all called home.
Lynne Hatler got a phone call from her husband John, “I just want to let you know Nick and I are okay.” And Lynne could go on. It wasn’t her husband’s rig, it wasn’t her son’s rig. Wives and girlfriends and mothers jammed the lines, calling, breathless, praying, “not my son, not my husband.”
BE POSITIVE UNTIL WE HEAR MORE.
The next morning, Becky saw news reports of the rig explosion, but it didn’t register with her that Blair might be involved since he was scheduled to be off. Her home phone rang. There was a hysterical Ashley on the line.
“She was crying,” Becky remembered. “I had to tell her, I can’t understand you. You have to stop.”
Uncle Jamie had called Ashley and said that Blair was one of the men missing. “I told Ashley to be positive until we hear more,” Becky said.
She then called Kyle Taquino and told him to tell his wife Kelli that Blair’s rig had exploded and her father was missing. Becky had a bigger challenge getting in touch with Jessica.
Becky and Jessica’s husband Justin didn’t know what to do. Jessica was in Dallas at a United Blood Services conference, surrounded by strangers. She wouldn’t be near a television or radio, and she wouldn’t have heard. What do they do? Should they try to call?
Justin wanted to wait. After all, maybe he had survived. They didn’t know for sure. For Becky, the thought of Jessica getting this news with no one from the family there to comfort her was too troubling. By the time Becky got through to her at the conference, United Blood Services had already booked her flight back from Dallas.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Becky said. “We would hear he was okay, then not okay.” The thing that made their hearts sink was the thing that made it all so devastating. Papa Bear was a good father.
“Dad would have called,” thought the girls.
He would never have let them wait for bad news. He would have known how anxious they all were. He would have called. But Blair never did.
The only sliver of hope was a missing lifeboat capsule. These capsules can hold up to 60 people and are completely enclosed to protect the survivors from rough seas until they are rescued. News from officials in Plaquemines Parish indicated on Wednesday afternoon that the missing capsule had been sighted and that the 11 workers were “safe and sound.” The Coast Guard would later deny the capsule was found.
Late Thursday evening, officials from BP, Transocean and M-I Swaco visited the girls at the Eunice home of their grandparents, L.D. and Geneva Manuel. They were told that officials didn’t think that there was any way the 11 men survived the blast. The next day, the Coast Guard announced it was calling off the search.
HE HAD A MEMORY BOX.
Becky knows a little bit about coping with the unexpected death of a father. Her father died at age 55 of a brain aneurism. He was driving with a cup of coffee on the dash and a stub of cigar in his mouth. When the Eunice policeman found his car running next to a tree on the side of the road, the officer thought he was asleep. The aneurism had happened so quickly that her dad felt no pain and his car had slowly veered off the road, stopping when it gently hit the tree.
Becky told her girls, “It is a privilege to be able to say, I know what you are feeling.'”
The girls have some comfort that their father’s death happened so suddenly that there was no pain. “I hope the day comes when I know what happened,” Jessica told her mother. “I want to know the last thing he ate. I want to know what was on his mind in the end.”
On May 7 the town of Eunice gathered at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, known as the “big church,” to lay to rest one of their own. Family, friends and co-workers came to praise Blair. He stood for the four F’s: family, faith, friends and fun. But Papa Bear will not be resting beneath the headstone. There was nothing left of him to bury. The girls made a memory box to bury in the family plot at the feet of his grandparents. Ashley has asked for a bench to be placed there at the grave site, so she and her sisters can still go and have long talks with Papa Bear.
WILL YOU FIGHT FOR MY DAD?
In all of the finger-pointing over who is to be blamed for this tragedy and in the frantic preparations for the millions of gallons of crude floating in the gulf to our shores, perhaps the lives of those 11 men have been somehow lost in the shuffle. It is not in the nature of the oil folks of Eunice to complain about that, however. They aren’t angry, they aren’t bitter — they have work to do.
“Everybody thinks about it,” said one oil rig worker who had just finished a six-week stint offshore. “They talk about it. After awhile, we have to get on. It isn’t the end of oil. If you’re worried about the beaches, well, quit your job and go down there and clean the beaches.
“People still want to drive their cars.”
Kelli, Jessica and Ashley are coping with the loss and have been courted by several law firms. It was at one of those interviews that the oldest daughter had had enough.
Kelli turned in her chair to look in the eyes of the attorneys who wanted to represent her and her two younger sisters. “I don’t how to say this,” she said. “I’m going to be blunt.
“I want to know if you will fight for my dad as hard as I would if I was in your shoes.”
The Manuel girls plan to fight until they know everything that happened on Deepwater Horizon. They will fight for their dad. They will fight for Papa Bear.
Remarks from Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman
Press Conference, New Orleans, April 23, three days after the accident:
Good evening, everyone, and thank you all for joining us this evening on such short notice. I speak to you today under very difficult circumstances. By now I’m sure you have seen the announcement issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Rear Admiral Mary Landry informed us earlier today that the Coast Guard has officially suspended its search and rescue effort for the eleven missing crew members of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon.
On behalf of all of us at Transocean, I would like to express my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who were lost. These 11 men were fathers, husbands, sons and brothers. And all of them were absolutely first-class professionals and colleagues.
The Deepwater Horizon had a tremendous reputation in our company and across the industry, a reputation that was the direct result of the talented individuals who worked on her. I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with them and their loved ones during this difficult time. I have spoken with a number of the family members today and their courage and dignity was humbling.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my extreme gratitude to the dedicated men and women from the U.S. Coast Guard, Transocean, BP and the crews of the Tidewater Damon Bankston. Also the medical professionals in Louisiana and Alabama who received and treated the injured and others who have worked exhaustively since the first alarm was soundedand right up to just a few hours ago. They have been working tirelessly in very tough conditions.
And I would like to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support we have received here on the ground in Louisiana and around the world. The outpouring of sympathy and support expressed by elected officials, the local Louisiana community and our colleagues in the industry has been greatly appreciated.
Since the incident occurred Tuesday night, our focus has been on supporting the people of Transocean and their families. I want to thank all of our employees for rallying around their colleagues and for their commitment to each other and to our company. And especially to those who were on the rig at the time of the incident, thank you for your hard work and your heroism in responding the way you did that day, and we are gratified that you are safe and are now reunited with your families.
As we move forward in this difficult time, we continue to work with the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, and other members of the response team to gather information on the causes of this tragic incident. We are committed to providing additional information and details as they become available.
I will take a few questions this evening, but at this point there remains a lot that we don’t know. The last thing we want to do is speculate or get ahead of our fact finding efforts. Thank you for your attention and support.
List of those killed in The explosion on Deepwater Horizon:
Jason Anderson, Midfield, Texas
Aaron Dale Burkeen, Sandtown, Miss.
Donald Clark, Newellton, Texas
Stephen Curtis, Georgetown, La.
Roy Wyatt Kemp, Monterey, La.
Karl Kleppinger, Natchez, Miss.
Gordon Jones (M-I SWACO), Baton Rouge, La.
Blair Manuel (M-I SWACO), Lafayette, La.
Dewey Revette, State Line, Miss.
Shane Roshto, Amite, Miss.
Adam Weise, Yorktown, Texas