At 10 p.m. on April 20, seven minutes after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded, the search-and-rescue alarm went off at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Training Center in Mobile, Ala. Pilot Lt. Andy Greenwood and his crew headed for their HC-144 Ocean Sentry, a CASA CN-235 twin turboprop, for the 115-mile flight. “We were at 4,000 feet when we hit the Gulf, and we could already see the fire,” Greenwood said. “As we got closer, the guys in the back had to take off their NVGs [night vision goggles].”
Eventually so did the crew of 6605, an HH-65C (Eurocopter Dolphin) helicopter based at CGAS New Orleans, 130 miles from the Horizon. They got the alarm at 10:10 p.m., were airborne 18 minutes later and arrived first on scene at 11 p.m. Lt. Cmdr. Tom Hickey and his crew were all veterans of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, but that did not prepare them for what they were about to see. Climbing through 500 feet, still 115 miles away, they could see the fire with their NVGs.
Cougar 92 also got the call and was spooling up on the pad in Galliano, La. The medevac-equipped Cougar Helicopters Sikorsky S-76 was en route to the BP Na Kika, a rig 14 miles southeast of the Horizon. Its mission was to set up medical triage for the Horizon’s casualties, assist the Coast Guard and evacuate the critically injured to hospitals on shore.
More aircraft queued up behind this procession and soon would be
en route: another HH-65C from New Orleans and an HH-65C and HH-60 JayHawk from Mobile. In the early morning hours, a civilian EMS helicopter also made a patient pick-up from the Na Kika, and relief HH-65s would arrive as dawn approached.
“There is a choreography for the Coast Guard and its SAR [search-and-rescue] operators,” said Hickey.
En route to the Horizon, Hickey and Greenwood had time to think through the risks and began communicating with each other and the other rescue aircraft. Hickey set up a common traffic frequency and contacted Cougar 92. He and his crew also talked among themselves about how they would approach the Horizon. “We knew there were fuel bowsers on the Horizon, but we didn’t know if they had exploded or were going to explode.” Hickey asked his crew if they were comfortable going in for a closer look to check for survivors in the water at the base of the rig. They said they were, but “we all quickly agreed that it was going to be in, one circle, one pass and out.”
The crew turned on the searchlights and dropped to 35 feet over the water to stay below the heat plume. They got within 100 feet of the Horizon. They did one slow close loop around the rig, but found nothing.
Hickey passed scene command to Greenwood in the HC-144. The turbo- prop began orbiting several miles off the rig at 1,500 feet. Even at that distance and altitude, Greenwood said he could feel the fire’s heat on the cockpit windows. The HC-144 ensured that the helicopters stayed separated and coordinated. Meanwhile, below it, the dance in the burning sky and on the water continued. The platform supply vessel Bankston picked up 115 survivors from the water. Coast Guard helicopters lowered their rescue swimmers onto the Bankston to set up medical triage, hoisted injured survivors off the boat and flew them to the Na Kika. Then they either returned to the Bankston for more hoists or to the waters around the Horizon to search for the 11 missing rig workers. The last patient was hoisted off at 3 a.m., but the searching continued. Hickey and his crew landed back in New Orleans after flying for just over seven hours.
“I’ll never forget what it looked like,” said Greenwood. “The flames easily went up over 500 feet and the smoke went as far as we could see.”
On a human scale, the scenes were battlefield haunting. Hickey said the rescue swimmers dropped onto the Bankston saw the worst of it–oil workers with skull and compound fractures and third-degree burns. He specifically remembers one badly injured man they flew to the Na Kika. “He was really messed up, but he’s alive. Bottom line.”