US coast guard hunts 11 missing after oil rig blast

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The US coast guard launched a frantic air and sea search Wednesday for 11 oil workers missing after a massive explosion ripped through a rig off the southern state of Louisiana.

Dramatic television pictures showed bright orange flames leaping into the night sky after the blast on the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible platform, located some 50 miles (80 kilometers) offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

Terrified workers jumped at least 100 feet (30 meters) into the water to escape the fire and survivors were found both on the rig and in the sea, some clinging to life rafts.

Three of the 126 crew were critically injured in the blast, which occurred at around 10:00 pm Tuesday (0300 GMT Wednesday) and left the platform listing between three and 10 degrees and still burning nearly a day later.

A total of 15 workers were rushed to hospital by helicopter from the rig, which is run by Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling contractor, headquartered in Houston, Texas.

While some vessels tried to douse the flames and others ferried shocked workers to shore, the coast guard searched the waters for signs of life using six cutters, a rescue plane and four helicopters.

"We have no idea where the 11 people unaccounted for are but we will continue to search," coast guard district commander Rear Admiral Mary Landry told journalists.

The coast guard will conduct a joint investigation along with the US Interior Department's Minerals Management Service and British energy giant BP, to whom the rig was under contract.

Special coast guard teams were on standby to assess any environmental damage once all the 126 workers had been accounted for and the fire extinguished.

Transocean vice president Adrian Rose said the explosion was probably the result of a blowout while drilling.

"There's undoubtedly some pressure buildup in the marine riser, which comes from the seabed," Rose told journalists, ruling out a shallow gas pocket as the cause of the explosion.

"Hydrocarbons under pressure -- gas or oil -- got into the riser, came up the riser, expanded rapidly and exploded," he suggested, stressing this was just an assumption and that investigations were ongoing.

BP vice president for Gulf of Mexico exploration David Rainey said any pollution from the explosion would be "minor" and other officials confirmed the fire had burned off much of the oil spilt during the accident.

Among the 126 workers aboard the rig at the time of the explosion, 79 were Transocean staff, six were BP personnel and the remainder were third party workers, Rose said.

According to Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon platform is 396 feet (121 meters) long and 256 feet wide. It can accommodate a crew of up to 130.

Built by Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea in 2001, the rig can drill up to 30,000 feet deep and operate "in harsh environments and water depths up to 8,000 feet," Transocean said.

The company said it had dispatched emergency and family response teams to help the US coast guard and BP care for traumatized workers and search for the missing.

Transocean, which is incorporated in Switzerland, has a fleet of 140 mobile offshore drilling units, in addition to three ultra-deepwater units under construction.

A local official earlier told The Times-Picayune newspaper that the 11 missing workers were found safe, but this report was denied by the US coast guard, which had initially indicated that 12 people were missing.

© 2010 AFP

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