Authorities suspend search for missing worker after blast

Jefferson Parish, La., authorities and others from other parishes respond to an oil rig explosion in Lake Pontchartrain off Kenner, La., Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. (Matthew Hinton/The Advocate via AP)

KENNER, La. (AP) — Authorities have suspended the search Monday for a Texas man who disappeared when an oil and gas platform exploded on a lake near New Orleans. Seven people were injured in the Sunday night blast and fire, including three who were in critical condition, authorities said.

The explosion happened on an oil and gas transfer facility in Lake Pontchartrain. The platform was on waters just north of the suburban city of Kenner in Jefferson Parish. The parish sheriff, Joe Lopinto, identified the missing man as Timothy Morrison, 44, of Katy, Texas, a subcontractor on the structure.

“The decision to suspend a search is never an easy one,” said Cmdr. Zac Ford. “We send our thoughts and prayers to the Morrison family and all those affected by this incident.”

The Coast Guard reported that a fire aboard the platform was out by midday and that aerial surveys showed no signs of pollution in the water or onshore. A Coast Guard helicopter, a Jefferson Parish helicopter, Coast Guard vessels and boats from local agencies, continued looking for Morrison.

Lopinto told reporters searching the platform itself was difficult.

“There is a lot of structural damage to the rig. We have a lot of metal, twisted metal that is covering certain areas and we’re going to have to go back out there with different equipment when the weather permits,” Lopinto said.

High winds made boarding the damaged structure difficult, he said.

The Clovelly Oil Co. platform exploded while maintenance was being done on the structure, sending a fireball high into the night sky, authorities and company officials said. The Kenner government Facebook page said authorities on the scene reported that cleaning chemicals had ignited on the structure, but the company said the cause of the blast was unknown. Lopinto stressed that the cause remained under investigation.

Lopinto said that “cleaning” work on the structure could pertain to the processing of gas.

Residents along the shores of the lake said their homes shook about 7:15 p.m. Some reported that the air smelled of burning rubber.

“My house actually shook,” Andrew Love, 32, told NOLA.com/The Times Picayune . “At first I thought it was a sonic boom or something, I had no idea what was happening.”

Lopinto said there were no reports of structural damage to any homes.

Five of the injured were hospitalized with “blast-type injuries and burns,” said Mike Guillot, director of East Jefferson Emergency Medical Services. Two of the three people in critical condition were in a burn unit, Guilot said.

A statement from Clovelly Oil said three oil wells near the platform were shut in at the time of the explosion and its one gas well was flowing, but was successfully shut-in shortly after the explosion. Clovelly does not know if any oil was released into the lake.

The platform is a storage and accumulation point for oil and gas from a number of wells, company spokesman Tim O’Leary said.

“It’s basically an underwater storage tank. It takes oil and gas” from wells, he said. Once the tank is filled, the oil or gas is pumped into a barge and moved.

He said the four wells that feed the platform were drilled in the 1970s and are all in the lake, a brackish tidal basin that is fed both by the Gulf of Mexico and by fresh water from rivers and streams in 16 Louisiana parishes and four Mississippi counties.

Its water covers 630 square miles (1630 square kilometers) but it’s generally only about 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) deep. It’s 40 miles (64 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide.

The U.S. Geological Service describes it as one of America’s largest estuaries and the waters support oysters, crabs and saltwater fish. There is no active drilling on the lake, according to Jean Kelly of the state environmental department.

The platform is located in Jefferson Parish. Authorities noted that the parish drinking water is safe because it is pulled from the Mississippi River.

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