The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Thursday was continuing the search for 11 missing crew members from the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon, which experienced an explosion and fire Tuesday night in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

Wednesday night USCG continued search and rescue with two cutters. Two aircraft were scheduled to be on the scene at first light Thursday, and two cutters were expected to arrive later Thursday morning to relieve the two other vessels.

Seventeen total sorties have been completed by air and water and approximately 1,940 square miles have been searched, USCG said early Thursday. The cause of the explosion is under investigation by the U.S. Mineral Management Service and USCG.

Owner and operator of the rig, Transocean Ltd., said the rig sank in the GOM Thursday. Now the USCG is worried that oil leaking from the rig would head toward the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines. meteorologists predicted Thursday afternoon that the ocean current in the GOM would switch to a southerly direction in the next 24 to 36 hours, which would push oil on the surface of the ocean toward the southeastern U.S. coastline.

“As of midday Thursday, the Gulf of Mexico current is taking oil from the sunken rig away from land, but meteorologists expect the current to change course as a storm from the Rockies begins to move towards the Mississippi Valley,” said. “This next system, scheduled to bring severe weather into the Mississippi Valley, will switch winds to the south, pulling the ocean current in the same direction.

“Surface oil washing upon beaches in Louisiana and Mississippi could be devastating for life along the coast.”

Deepwater Horizon was constructed in 2001. According to analysts, it would cost about $600 million to replace it today. The rig is credited with making one of the biggest oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Mexico last year — BP plc’s Tiber well completed in August in Keathley Canyon Block 102, 250 miles southeast of Houston in 4,132 feet (1,259 meters) of water. The well was drilled to a total depth of 35,055 feet (10,685 meters), “making it one of the deepest wells ever drilled by the oil and gas industry,” BP said (see Daily GPI, Sept. 3, 2009).

Watchstanders at the USCG District Eight command center received a report at about 10 p.m. Tuesday of an explosion and fire aboard Deepwater Horizon, approximately 42 miles southeast of Venice, LA (see Daily GPI, April 22).

Of the 126 people on board at the time of the explosion, 115 have been accounted for. Of those accounted for 17 were medevaced from the scene; 94 were transported to Port Fourchon, LA, where they arrived at about 1:20 a.m. Thursday. There were no major injuries reported among the evacuated crew members. Four crew members were transferred to a separate vessel.

Updates on the search and video of the explosion site are available online. Family members of rig crew can call (832) 587-8554 for information.

The exact cause of the explosion has yet to be reported by investigators, but speculation is that it was a well blowout.

“To my knowledge, this is the first serious blowout and fire to occur on this latest generation of deepwater drilling equipment,” said Michael Lynch, a consultant with Gerson Lehman Group. “In theory, with modern blowout control equipment, such an event is virtually impossible. But every seasoned driller knows that the possibility of deadly danger is never far away.” meteorologists said there was a thunderstorm in the area of the oil rig explosion Tuesday night. Lightning could have potentially struck the rig, but weather as a cause for the explosion is under investigation by authorities.

The American Petroleum Institute expressed its concern for the crew members and their families and emphasized that the industry continuously works to improve the safety of its operations. “The industry is committed to a goal of zero fatalities, zero injuries and zero incidents, and every incident is both one too many and a powerful incentive to improve training, operational procedures, regulations, industry standards and technology.”

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