‘His last words were, “I love you” ’
Michelle Jones was pregnant with her second son when her husband was killed on the Deepwater Horizon rig. A year later, she is slowly trying to move on.
Clinging to her squirming 8-month-old, Michelle Jones managed to pull open a safety-deposit box at a Chase bank branch in Baton Rouge, slide off her pebble of a diamond wedding ring — all Gordon could afford seven years ago — and drop it in the metal container.
She wept for a moment. And closed the lid.
“It is time to move on with my life,” said Jones, 30. “I know this will be hard on Gordon's family, especially his mother.”
It's been relentless month after relentless month since her husband, Gordon Jones, died with 10 other rig workers in the fiery explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon. Almost a year later, she yearns for quiet routine — a part-time job, going to the gym, dinner out with friends, and maybe even a date.
“I miss the feelings when someone tells you, ‘I love you’ and ‘You are beautiful,’” she said.
A mud engineer, Gordon was working in a below-deck room where drilling materials were handled when the rig blew.
Michelle, in the ninth month of her second pregnancy, got an early-morning call April 21 from a representative of Gordon's rig services company, M-I SWACO.
“He said there had been an explosion and fire on Gordon's rig,” she recalled.
She last spoke to her husband about 9:30 p.m. on April 20, a few minutes before the explosion and three days before their sixth wedding anniversary.
“His last words were, ‘I love you,’” she said.
The spectacle of the disaster — the nighttime blast, the technicians who testified that key safety systems were bypassed, scores of headlines, interview requests by reporters and lawyers, cheery BP advertisements promising “to make it right,” and that menacing, round-the-clock live video of BP's renegade well — all of it pummeled Michelle for months.
In early May, she filed a lawsuit in federal court against the rig's owner, Transocean Ltd., and its operator, BP, as well as Halliburton Energy Services and numerous insurance companies. The suit accuses the companies of negligence, violating government regulations and failing to take appropriate safety precautions.
On May 14, the same day a letter arrived from the Coast Guard officially declaring that Gordon was “presumed dead,” Michelle went into labor and drove herself to the hospital. She had packed a framed portrait of Gordon, son Stafford and herself dressed in their Sunday best, and focused on Gordon's image as she gave birth to Maxwell Gordon Jones.
“When I brought Max home from the hospital two days later, '60 Minutes' aired a program about what went wrong with the well's blowout preventer,” she recalled. “It was so disturbing I couldn't sleep. I caught myself wondering if he had somehow escaped, and I wondered, 'We had a happy marriage, didn't we?'”
Michelle and her two boys were among a group of grieving families who met with President Obama on June 10. As their bus rumbled through the White House gates, Michelle noticed a family of four — a young man, his wife and two little boys — crossing a nearby street.
“I'll never forget that sight; it drove home why I was there,” she said. “I'm a widow with two young children.”
Saturday, June 26, would have been Gordon's 29th birthday. As relatives sang happy birthday in a private room of a Baton Rouge restaurant, Michelle said she was “imagining what it might have been like with Gordon there sitting next to me. Just silly things like holding his hand, kissing him on the cheek — kicking him under the table for telling an inappropriate joke.”
Michelle and her boys attended a July 4 family gathering alongside an oxbow of the Mississippi River. A month later, for the first time, “I began thinking, 'I can live through this,'” she said. “But it also hurt to think that the company that had publicly accepted blame for the incident had never once called me to say, 'I'm sorry.'”
In September, about the time the well head was finally plugged, Michelle, who has been living on Gordon's life insurance policy and paychecks mailed to her by his former employer, began working two days a week at an antique store near home.
The family delayed creating a memorial for Gordon. Until recently, Michelle said she feared such a gathering would “put a sense of finality on the whole thing that I wasn't quite ready for yet. Everyone deals with things like this at their own pace.”
Gordon's mother, however, ordered a grave marker in his honor, which earlier this month she placed on a family burial site at a Baton Rouge cemetery. Michelle also has special plans for the anniversary of the tragedy.
She hopes to fly over the Deepwater Horizon site, perhaps in a helicopter trip arranged by the company her husband worked for. “Just being there, near him, would be good,” she said.
Before she goes, though, she plans to visit her safe-deposit box.
“I'll be wearing my wedding ring one last time.”
— Louis Sahagun, reporting from Baton Rouge, La. Photograph by Carolyn Cole.
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Fish return, but livelihood is elusive
A year after the BP oil spill, and even with plenty of fish snapping about, charter boat Capt. Peace Marvel's sport-fishing business is still dead.
At the first hint of daybreak, Peace Marvel casts his shiny metal lure into a reed-choked channel, scanning the rippling waters with an unblinking squint.
In almost an instant, Marvel's fishing rod lurches violently downward. A 5-pound redfish that swallowed the jig is soon flopping on the fiberglass floor of the boat. Two more hookups quickly follow as the stout, ponytailed native of bayou country hauled in redfish almost at will.
Marvel, with his perpetual sunburn, Southern drawl and lip bulging with tobacco, has had his line in the water for 35 years. Some call the man a “tuna whisperer.”
In any other year, the 44-year-old charter boat captain would have been powering his vessel through the twists and turns of these marshlands — or over blue waters 20 miles beyond the mouth of the Mississippi River. His boat, Peace Keeper, would be loaded with sport fishermen who had paid up to $1,200 a day in a quest to catch trophy swordfish and yellowfin tuna the size of refrigerators.
But BP's busted pipe belched hundreds of thousands of gallons per day of sweet Louisiana crude into the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately closing about 88,500 square miles of federal waters to fishing. Marvel's clients began cancelling their high-end fishing tours last year at the first images of oil sheens, oil-soaked birds, dead fish and sea turtle carcasses. And they didn't rebook.
“Before the oil spill, I had 85 fishing trips on the books for March,” Marvel said. “This year, nobody is booking trips because they believe the fish here are coated in oil — but they are not.”
While big dorado “the color of candy” swim at sea and the bayous are alive with flounder, redfish and speckled trout, Marvel's $200,000-a-year sport-fishing business is on life support.
Like thousands of other charter boat captains, commercial fishermen and deckhands, Marvel signed on with BP to help clean up the oil spill under its “vessels of opportunity program.” The BP work dried up in November and fishing restrictions were lifted. Last month he banked a long-delayed $37,500 check from BP for his work.
Yet a year later he said he's still getting worrisome calls. “'Are the fish safe to eat? Is there oil everywhere?' I tell them, 'There's still some oil here and there but it doesn't affect anything.'”
Marvel is reconsidering his livelihood. He and his wife, Erin, have three children, including a seven-month-old boy, to support.
“I lay awake at night stressing over difficult questions,” he said, casting another jig into the water. “How long can my savings hold out? Will my clients ever return? Should I invest in the advertising and equipment it would take to restart the charter fishing business it took 15 years to build, or try some new line of work?”
— Louis Sahagun, reporting from Venice, La. Photograph by Carolyn Cole.
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The Rig Operator
Choppy times for gulf rig worker and wife
When the BP blowout led to a slowdown in drilling permits, Murphy Bernard's firm furloughed him. It's been up and down since for him and his ill wife, Dena.
Murphy Bernard was at work on a shallow-water rig in the gulf when the Horizon blew. He quickly called his wife, Dena, back in Cajun country to find out whether any of her relatives were on board. They weren't.
But Murphy and Dena cried anyway — for the victims and their families and for the realization, as Dena said, “That this could be y'all.”
Like hundreds of oil industry families along the coast, the Bernards were used to living with risk: Bernard, 54, had been a crane operator for more than three decades. Every day, he knew that one slip of his wrist could send tons of pipe falling on million-dollar machines, or men.
Outweighing it all was the reward — steady work, a steady paycheck, good benefits, and two weeks off for every two weeks on.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster forced them to reconsider. But in the end, Bernard went back on the water. They needed the pay and the insurance plan to deal with Dena's lupus.
About two months after the blowout, Bernard was furloughed. Officials at Seahawk Drilling said a slowdown in issuing Gulf of Mexico drilling permits after the BP spill had hurt business. Bernard lost his paycheck, but kept his benefits.
In November, Dena came down with appendicitis, and her lungs collapsed. Bernard was called to return to the rig. He wavered, and went to Dena, who had been hospitalized and rendered mute by a ventilator. She grabbed a pen and wrote on his hand: “GO.”
She also rubbed her fingertips together: They needed the money. They were trying to live off $222 weekly unemployment checks. Their savings were evaporating.
By February, Seahawk had declared bankruptcy and announced that it was selling its assets to another company. Bernard worried that he would lose his job for good. He also marveled at the disruption of a way of life that had been such a constant. His father had taught him the offshore business.
It wasn't just the work. It seemed like everything. In spring and summer, Bernard always went out shrimping and fishing, filling up a big freezer in the garage with enough seafood to feed his extended family for the year. These days, after last year's post-spill fishery closures, the freezer is filled with frozen pizzas and a skinned and bagged rabbit Bernard shot in the backyard.
For now, it looks like the new company will keep him on the job, but with a 10% pay cut. His attempts to recoup his losses have been fruitless: A $100-million BP-financed fund to compensate rig workers applied at first only to those working on deepwater rigs affected by an Obama administration moratorium. Bernard was a shallow-water worker.
Officials later broadened the fund to include the many affected workers who supported or supplied the deepwater rigs. But again, there was nothing for guys like Bernard.
Today, he and Dena are focused on the future, however diminished.
“We're praying for work, we're praying that we can trawl — we're just praying that things work out,” Dena said.
— Richard Fausset, reporting from Cut Off, La. Photograph by Carolyn Cole.
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The Tourism Manager
Bringing tourists back to the beaches
Foster wants visitors to the Alabama coast to notice the white sand — and to forget about 'that duck.'
As the chief marketing guru for Alabama's beach towns, Mike Foster's biggest pre-spill concern was how to tamp down the region's downscale Redneck Riviera nickname, and convince his most desired patrons —Southern moms aged 35 to 54, with six-figure household incomes — to pack up the SUV and visit.
Foster, a veteran public relations man, spent more than a decade notching up successes.
Then came the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Foster knew it was trouble long before the first tar ball fouled the sugar-white shore.
The beaches took their share of oil. But even on days when all was clear, Foster said, TV news kept showing what he calls “that duck,” footage of a seabird coated in oil. All the pictures of white sand in the world couldn't undo the stain of that duck.
His strategy last summer was to tell the truth. Every day, the website for the local tourism bureau reported the facts, however unpleasant. “If there's oil on the beach, we'll tell them that,” Foster, 62, said. “But if the beaches are clean, we'll tell them that too.”
His tourism office burned through $15 million in BP money, paying for TV ads and sponsoring a nationally televised Jimmy Buffett concert. Yet the tourism business dwindled by nearly half. Alabama's summer beach rental revenue declined from $133 million in 2009 to $70 million in the post-spill summer of 2010, according to state statistics.
This makes the summer of 2011 particularly crucial for an area almost entirely dependent on visitors. There are lingering reasons for concern. For some, that duck is still a difficult image to wipe out. The beaches, which appear pristine at first glance, are still patrolled by cleanup crews who spend mornings plopping tar balls into little nets.
Some independent scientists, like Wilma Subra, a chemist studying the spill's effects on behalf of a Louisiana environmental group, warn that lingering oil in the water and sand could cause respiratory and skin problems for casual visitors. Subra says she wouldn't swim in the stuff.
But Foster remains optimistic. State officials have approved the water for swimming, and BP just completed a thorough “deep cleaning” of the beaches. Most important, Foster said, many families would find it difficult to stay away from their favorite vacation spot.
There is some evidence he may be right. Gulf Shores spokesman Grant Brown said tax revenue was up nearly 3% in the first two weeks of spring break season, compared with 2010.
BP has given Alabama $16 million more for a continued marketing push, and Foster is waiting to find out how much of that he will be getting. In the meantime, this season's magazine and Web ads beckon regulars to return — without mentioning oil. If you mention oil, Foster said, they'll only think about oil.
“We're not lying about the sugar-white beaches,” he said. “We believe the memory of potential visitors is short.”
— Richard Fausset, reporting from Orange Beach, Ala. Photograph by Carolyn Cole.
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Oysterman tries to get above water
With Alabama's public oyster beds closed, Kevin Brannon now struggles with BP's challenging claims process. He doesn't seem to be making any headway.
On a balmy March afternoon, shrimper and oysterman Kevin Brannon walked out of the offices of the Alabama Oyster Farmers Assn. in a scruffy shopping mall clutching paperwork and hanging on to a hope that at least this would be a sure thing.
The papers, once signed, would allow him to take part in a state program hiring fishermen to move bacteria-contaminated oysters — an issue unrelated to the BP oil spill — to cleaner waters. The pay was $8 a sack, a tiny bone the government was throwing the oystermen.
At least it was something.
Like many watermen along the Gulf Coast, Brannon has seen his last year dominated by unsettling questions about the health of the fisheries and the restitution payments promised by BP.
Alabama's public oyster beds remain closed. Jason Herrmann, a state biologist, says that's because of enduring damage from hurricanes and drought. But Gordon Wright, president of the oyster farmers group, is among those who suspect the dispersants used to fight the oil spill killed many of the young oysters.
Brannon, like many others, is frustrated by the BP-funded claims process. Between the claims bureaucracy and restricted waters, it's been hard for him to say where his money will come from. Sometimes it hasn't come at all.
“Really lost, kinda, is how you'd have to feel,” Brannon said.
The 42-year-old fisherman said there were more unknowns ahead. In May, he hopes to be out on the Papa Hunky, his brother's weathered, 51-foot shrimp boat, hauling in nets fat with squiggling brown shrimp.
Fishermen and biologists agree that the health of the “brownie” population will not be known until men like Brannon gas up their boats and head out.
It's hard to feel optimistic.
“I believe if the oil's out there it's going to kill the babies,” Brannon said.
He said he received two $5,000 checks from BP early on, but more substantial restitution hadn't worked out. His first application for an emergency payment from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the group administering the $20-billion BP trust fund, was turned down. He was told he lacked documentation, even though he produced tax forms, oyster licenses and shrimp tickets. He's not sure what he did wrong.
His girlfriend worked as a crab picker before the spill, but low demand for gulf crabs killed off that job. With five children to feed, the couple has burned through the savings they built, even after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his shrimp boat.
They await a ruling from the claims facility on what Brannon hopes will be a payout in the low six figures. It would cover an anticipated four years of losses from the closed oyster beds.
His old life was defined by the rhythms of nature. These days it seems stuck in politics.
Alabama Atty. Gen. Luther Strange accused claims administrator Kenneth R. Feinberg of “stalling the large majority of claims” in an attempt to force meager settlements. Feinberg defended his work, noting that nearly 29,000 Alabama residents had received more than $688 million in payments.
From Brannon's vantage, it seems more about luck and chance.
“It was like eenie, meenie, miney, moe,” he said. “And if you was moe, you didn't get nothin’.”
— Richard Fausset, reporting from Bayou La Batre, Ala. Photograph by Carolyn Cole.
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