At 2200 we leave the shop in Tomball and drive east to Louisiana, towing our 30-foot aluminum workboat behind us. We talk quietly and sleep occasionally as the miles pass and darkness hides the fresh destruction of yet another hurricane. We know our work day begins as soon as we hit the Black Elk Energy dock, deep in the bayou, down in that wart that grows off the end of the state and out into the gulf. Anyone who’s been to Haiti, Jamaica, or any tropical third world country knows what we drove through after leaving highway 90 near Houma, heading south past Dulac. Combine the general squalor with the chaotic aftermath of hurricane Gustav and you have a scene right out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If it’s true that God hates trailer parks, he doesn’t have much love for the bayou, either.
Article and photos by Mark Norder
Reaching the small dock about 0730, we find little more than a scruffy wood wharf butting up against a crushed shell parking lot next to an old fish camp. We stand around waiting on the Black Elk Energy team, while AM 1590, the “Ragin’ Cajun” pumps Zydeco into the humid morning air. Soon the others arrive, and we head out to the job site, 10 miles off the coast.
We beat the crane barge out by four or five hours, so I climb onto the rickety remains of the small boat landing to survey the site. Twisted pipes, splintered pilings and a concrete wedge sprout from the mud brown water. Planks and debris bob on the surface, attached by rusted rebar and twisted cable to stuff submerged and unknown. The remaining half of this pumping station still holds the storage tanks. The other half, our half, is pounded into the gulf, and has taken generators, tool sheds, cranes, and other sharp, unyielding pieces of junk down with it.
Before we left the dock, the head honcho from Black Elk takes me aside.
“Safety is our biggest priority.” he tells me.
“Same with Seamar.” I reply.
“Good, but that doesn’t mean we’re to drag our feet,” he says. “There’s a lot to do here!”
“Sure.” I answer.
Now, standing on that boat landing, long before the barge arrives, we hold our safety meeting. I tell my guys that we do this slow and careful. “Screw Black Elk,” I tell them, “this place is a mess. We only move as fast as our hands can see.” All agree.
Eventually the barge arrives, and the steel telephone pole size spuds are lowered into the mud to hold the barge in place. Breaking out our gear, we get the compressors running, the umbilical figure-eighted on the deck next to the dive ladder, the rack box connected and the coms working. Tony, the first diver on the rotation, jumps in at 1447. After locating the four-inch supply pipe he has been instructed to use as a reference, he begins the search. Feeling his way along, he attempts to answer the Black Elk engineer’s questions.
This, only my second job, is a world away from that simple tanker inspection in clear gulf water, three weeks ago. Here, my diver is walking blind through a junkyard, while I do my best to just shut up and let him do his job.
Jim, the Black Elk engineer, tells Tony what they’re looking for before he gets in the water. Now, he helps him navigate the wreckage to find the two big generators before saltwater ruins them. With the generators finally buoyed off, Tony stays in the water to locate and inspect the pipelines leading into and out of this pumping station.
That one dive, because of our late start, brings an end to the workday. Starting first thing in the morning, there is equipment to salvage and wreckage to remove. Scheduled for a full week or more, we are to be put up on a separate barge equipped with bunks, a head, a galley and a cook. It is to be here at noon to provide our lunch that first day, and will be tied alongside the crane barge for the duration. Never see it. Word eventually comes that it will show up at the Black Elk dock about 1800.
Getting back to that dock about 1630, all but my crew heads home for the night. I read while there’s light, someone skips stones across the bay, and a couple of the guys take a walk down the road. We are alone here. The east side of town, up against the bayou, consists of tin roofed fish camps, restaurants and bars, boat rentals and cheap motels. Every building is perched ten or twelve feet off the ground; a low rent Miami Beach on stilts.
The road curves south, following the coast, and you can see across the marsh, toward the southwest for a good 10 or 12 dark miles. There are no lights, not one. And no people; no traffic; only the occasional cop car patrolling for looters and vandals. And there is no phone service, no call to Domino’s, no call for help. Nothing in the crew boat but a warm can of coke and an old box of Ding Dongs.
After an hour or so, a white pickup pulls into the lot, driven by one of the riggers from the engineering crew. “You guys look thirsty!” he says as he steps out of his Chevy to pass out cans of beer from the cooler in the back. As the sun sets, we find ourselves leaning against the bed of this redneck Cajun’s pickup. Six of us drinking Bud Lite and eating cup cakes, swapping lies and swatting mosquitoes: an unexpected break from the boredom. Soon our new friend, not wanting to get caught in the curfew, heads for home, and we are again by ourselves. Thankfully, he leaves his cooler. With our friend gone, I take my thoughts down to the water. I tell my guys I’m gonna keep an eye out for the barge, but I just want a few quiet minutes to myself.
I can’t help but think about the conversation I had with Marilyn last night while packing for this job. She tells me that Tina called earlier in the day to check up on me. Marilyn also tells me that Tina does this regularly. I also learn that she, Billy and Dallas have a new place in Huntington Beach. This information is a relief on several levels and makes my life much easier, but I still avoid direct communication. I want results, not words to be the measure of my recovery. I look forward to the day I can return whole and show them that their faith and efforts were not wasted. I’m hoping that this job is one more small step toward that goal.
About 2200, a cozy little bungalow, lit up all warm and inviting, pushed by a big tug and humming with the sound of its own generator, slides up the bayou and ties up at the end of the fish camp. It looks like a cottage you’d rent for a week or two on Cape Cod for a family vacation, but it sits on a rusty steel barge, not a sandy bluff.
Going onboard, we are welcomed by the cook and shown around. There is a comfortable living room with a big screen TV hooked up to a satellite dish, a full kitchen and separate dining area. Down the hall, two full baths and a bunk room. In the back corner, a washer and dryer.
“This is the president’s private floating getaway.” The cook tells us. “When the crew barge had problems earlier, me and the house was sent up.”
Damn, I think to myself, this was worth the wait.
It’s 0600 the next morning; my team and I have hot food in our bellies, a cup of coffee in hand, and are again waiting for the Black Elk crew to show up. Underway at 0715, we make the run out to the barges and get the dive spread up and going so that Greg, the day’s first diver, can be in the water at 0855.
Greg’s a big, sloppy, out of shape guy in his 40s. He talks too damn much, but knows what he’s doing, works hard, and gets the job done. He can yack all he wants for all I care.
It takes him over two hours to find the first generator after searching an area that couldn’t be more than 60 by 40 feet. The crane operator lowers two slings that Gordon works under the generator. He then shackles the slings to the crane hook and a strain is taken to see that all is secure. Before the lift begins, Gordon moves to the side and hangs off the ladder, away from the generator and any hazards unseen in the muddy water. With the first generator on deck, it takes Gordon no more than 15 minutes to locate the second, and the recovery process is repeated.
Even now, concern is growing over a new hurricane approaching the Gulf, and they want us to remove as much junk as possible. They don’t want that supply pipeline we inspected the day before damaged by loose debris if Ike does materialize. Gordon had come upon a gantry crane and a staircase in his search for the generators, and goes back to rig them. As he snaps the sling onto the crane hook, he mumbles, “man, I’m beat” into his com. As the strain comes up on the slings, I put an end to his three hour and 20-minute dive.
The crew boat comes back with lunch, and along with the food, news that Hurricane Ike is forcing us to demobe. It is time to cut and run. But there is still time for a short dive and hopefully, a recovery of one other piece of wreckage whose location we are pretty certain of. “Hey Albert, you wanna make a quick jump and rig that catwalk?”
“Then suit up, we ain’t got all day.”
Soon Albert, our tender, makes his first ever working dive as he rigs a sling to a piece of catwalk that lies across our target. With the catwalk removed, we realize that the piece underneath is not as we suspected and there is no time to continue the search. We pull Albert, secure from dive ops and brake down the station.
Plan is for the tug to take the two barges with all the equipment up into a secure haven along the coast and wait out the storm. Our semi will meet it there to unload the dive gear and return to the company shop until the storm passes. We’ll run back to our dock in the crew boat where a pickup, also coming out of Houston, will get us later that night. It’s a good plan. At least for a little while.
Our crew boat is about two thirds of the way in, when the tug captain calls. Seems that while he was working the barges around to head in, one of them grounded on a sandbar. While trying to free it, the tug ran up on a different sandbar. With cold beer all but in site, we turn around.
Getting back, we find the two barges still lashed together, with one bobbing on the swell, banging against the other, wedged still and hard on the bottom. A couple hundred feet away, perpendicular to those barges is the tug, straining against the sand, churning muddy water behind its stern, going nowhere.
“Can you guys give us a push?” asks the captain of this three-story high tug.
Our boat driver looks at me and I shrug.
“Sure.” he tells the tug captain.
Our 30-foot-long, outboard powered crew boat eases up against the tug and throttles up. Things go about as you’d expect.
After several unsuccessful attempts, we drop a small crew off on the barge and head in. Back at the dock I work the phone, changing plans and schedules to accommodate this chaotic situation. Out on the gulf, with the help of the incoming tide, the crew eventually works the tug, then the barge off the sand bar and make it in about 2200.
The crew cab arrives just after midnight and my guys are on their way home. I stay to wait for our semi, to make sure nothing gets left behind. In the silent darkness, I stare across the deserted bayou and think back to another lonely night.