04.19.11

The BP Oil Spill Killed My Father

BP oil rig engineer Blair Manuel was not even supposed to be working when he and 10 co-workers were killed in the Gulf of Mexico explosion a year ago. His daughter tells Rick Outzen the anniversary is about honoring her father, not lawsuits or pointing fingers.

What haunts the family of Blair Manuel is that he wasn’t supposed to be on the Deepwater Horizon rig when it exploded the night of April 20, 2010. He was due to be off the weekend before the accident, but something happened with his replacement and he agreed to stay through the 20th.

The day of the explosion, the mud engineer—a nickname for the drilling fluids engineer responsible for ensuring the properties of the drilling fluid (aka drilling mud) are within designed specifications—was set to leave at 5 p.m. but had to stay a little longer because of problems with well tests. He was done by 7, and waiting for clearance to leave. He chatted on the phone with Kelli Manuel Taquino, one of his three daughters, for about 40 minutes, asking her to help him pass the time. He talked a little about the tickets he had for the LSU Tigers' weekend baseball series against Ole Miss.

Less than three hours later, a methane gas bubble erupted from the well head, rocketed up the drill pipe’s sheath, and exploded on the deck of Deepwater Horizon. Blair was one of 11 men who went missing.

“I miss his phone calls, his laugh, and just hanging out with him,” said Kelli.

A year after the worst environmental disaster in American history, Kelli, 36, and her siblings, Jessica Manuel Manchester, 31, and Ashley Manuel, 29, are seeking to honor and remember the man who took them whitewater rafting, sang Doobie Brothers’ songs with them in the car, and treated them to dinner whenever he came home to Lafayette, Louisiana, after working offshore. A family friend has arranged for the women to fly by helicopter over the well site. For them, the anniversary of their father’s death isn’t a time to point fingers or talk about lawsuits.

“Every time I turned on the TV or read the newspaper that was what it was all about.”

But they worry that he and the other men who died on the rig have been forgotten. Kelli hated how the capping of the well dragged on for so long, with little mention of Manuel and his co-workers once the oil hit the beaches. The men’s bodies were never recovered.

“Everything comes back, but them,” Kelli told The Daily Beast.

Manuel, who was 56, was known on the rigs as Papa Bear. He was engaged to Melinda Becnel of St. Amant, Louisiana, and her young grandson called him “Bear” because he had trouble saying “Blair.” His co-workers turned it into Papa Bear.

Manuel, who was divorced from his daughters’ mother, Becky, worked for M-I Swaco, a Houston-based supplier of drilling fluid systems. He had been working on the floating oil drilling platform, 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

April 20, 2010, was to be a momentous day for BP and the 126 riggers, contractors, and support personnel on the rig. Manuel and others were busy setting the cement seal at the well head, which was 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. Once the seal was set, the Deepwater Horizon floating rig would move on. The exploratory well would become a full production well.

The well had passed positive pressure tests, but there is evidence that it may not have passed crucial negative pressure tests. Significant pressure discrepancies were observed in at least two of these tests, which were conducted just hours before the explosion.

For two days after the blast, the Manuel sisters waited for news. They placed their hopes on a missing lifeboat capsule, but there were conflicting news reports about whether it had been found. News from officials in Plaquemines Parish indicated the capsule had been sighted and that the 11 workers were “safe and sound.” That report was later denied by the Coast Guard.

But one bit of knowledge made the women’s hearts sink: Papa Bear was a good father.

“Dad would have called,” they figured. He would have known how anxious they all were. He would have called.

But Manuel never did. By Friday, April 23, the Coast Guard announced it was calling off the search. All 11 men were declared dead.

In the weeks and months that followed, Kelli and her sisters avoided the news. “Every time I turned on the TV or read the newspaper that was what it was all about, so we all shied away from the TV or newspaper for a while,” said Kelli.

There have been two bright spots for the Manuel family in the past year.

The women met President Obama last June at the White House, along with nine other families of the victims. Family members were seated in the Red Room and State Dining Room, and the president went from table to table, meeting with each of them.

“He expressed his sorrow,” said Kelli, “and told us, ‘If there is anything I can ever do for you, my secretary has your name and number, you have ours, give us a call and we will take care of it.’”

And this spring, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri met privately with Kelli and her husband, Kyle, before the home opener and presented them with a bat engraved with her father’s name.

Does Kelli think the helicopter overfly of the well site will help give her and her sisters some closure? “We’re working towards that door, might not ever get there, but who knows?” she said. “I’ve learned from this tragedy to never take any time, day, or person for granted. The only thing in life that you can bet on happening in life is the sun going up and the sun going down. Don’t sweat the small stuff; the laundry can wait.”

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.