Divers aim to reach capsized vessel in search for survivors

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) — With 12 people still missing from a capsized oil industry vessel, Coast Guard divers waited for a break in stormy weather Thursday that would allow them to reach the hull and search for survivors.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Lally said rescuers don’t know whether any of the missing might be caught inside the lift vessel that flipped over Tuesday in hurricane-force winds and high seas off the Louisiana coast.

“There is the potential they are still there, but we don’t know,” Lally said early Thursday. “We’re still searching for 12 people because there are 12 still missing.”

The Coast Guard expects the divers to make it to the vessel today, but the safety of the rescuers is also a factor, he said.

“With something like this, that is a vessel that is capsized with the potential of people trapped inside, there are a lot of dynamic aspects we have to look at,” Lally said.

Six people from the Seacor Power were rescued alive and one person’s body was recovered from the water Wednesday as searchers scanned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Part of the overturned ship’s hull and one of its legs were still visible, leaving most of the bulky vessel underwater, in an area 50 to 55 feet (15 to 17 meters) deep, according to the Coast Guard. Also called a jackup rig, it has three long legs designed to reach the sea floor and lift it out of water as an offshore platform.

Despite a widening search involving Coast Guard boats and aircraft, no other crew members have been spotted. Interrupted by darkness and bad weather, the effort spread to more than 1,440 square miles (3,730 square kilometers) by Wednesday afternoon, according to a news release.

“We had both air and surface assets out last night — nothing materially has changed,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class John Michelli said around dawn Thursday.

Authorities using all-terrain vehicles to search the shoreline near Port Fourchon, a major base for the U.S. oil and gas industry, paused for impending storms Thursday. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the area as heavy rainfall pushed through.

Lafourche Parish President Archie P. Chaisson III said the sheriff’s office, harbor police and Homeland Security officers were looking for signs of life on the shore.

“There are some local guys that are on that vessel,” Chaisson said. “It’s a very tight community in that industry. Those crews are very tight. This crew had apparently been around for a while working together.”

Marion Cuyler, the fiancée of crane operator Chaz Morales, was waiting with family of other missing workers at a Port Fourchon fire station Wednesday near a landing site where helicopters were coming and going. She said she talked to her fiancé before he left Tuesday.

“He said that they were jacking down and they were about to head out, and I’m like, ‘The weather’s too bad. You need to come home.’ And he’s like, ‘I wish I could.’”

The vulnerabilities of lift boats in storms have been known for years, and federal authorities have investigated multiple deaths involving them.

In September 2011, large waves struck the hull of the Trinity II in the Gulf of Mexico, breaking one of its giant legs, and the stern collapsed into the water, the National Transportation Safety Board wrote in its report. Four of the 10 people on board perished.

In July 1989, the lift boat AVCO V sank off the coast of Leeville, Louisiana, in storms associated with Hurricane Chantal. Waves shifted equipment on the deck, prompting the vessel to capsize and sink, the NTSB found. Ten of the 14 people on board died.

Coast Guard Capt. Will Watson said winds were 80 to 90 mph (130 to 145 kph) and waves rose 7 to 9 feet high (2.1 to 2.7 meters) when the Seacor Power overturned.

“That’s challenging under any circumstance,” Watson said at a Wednesday news conference. “We don’t know the degree to which that contributed to what happened, but we do know those are challenging conditions to be out in the maritime environment.”

The National Weather Service in New Orleans issued a special marine warning before 4 p.m. Tuesday that predicted steep waves and winds greater than 50 knots (58 mph).

Weather service meteorologist Phil Grigsby said the system was an offshore derecho — or straight-winds storm. “This was not a microburst — just a broad straight-line wind event that swept over a huge area,” Grigsby said.

He said the weather service’s nearest official gauge, at Grand Isle, showed about 30 minutes of 75 mph (120 km/h) winds, followed by hours of winds over 50 mph (80 km/h).

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Photographer Gerald Herbert contributed to this story from Grand Isle, Louisiana. McGill contributed from New Orleans; and Martin from Atlanta.