Update, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017: While on Sunday night officials referred to the energy platform that exploded in Lake Pontchartrain near Kenner as an oil platform, authorities on Monday referred to natural gas being stored on the platform as well. Meanwhile, four of the injured workers had been discharged from local hospitals on Monday; one remained in a New Orleans intensive care unit in critical condition; and two had been taken to Baton Rouge General Hospital's burn unit, and indication their wounds are severe.  

Officials said the missing crew member was 44-year-old Timothy Morrison, of Katy, Texas. Those who were rescued were identified as Alvin Kembrel, Lawrence Dufrene, James Bordelon, Devin Billiot, Brent Neil, Paul Pfister and Cody Boudreaux. 

Bordelon was recovering from surgery at University Medical Center. Dufrene and Kembrel were eventually sent to Baton Rouge General Hospital's burn unit due to the severity of their injuries. Billiot, Neil, Pfister and Boudreaux were all treated and released.

Original story

Officials were prepared to search through the night Sunday for one person reported missing following an oil platform explosion in Lake Pontchartrain northwest of Kenner that sent seven others to the hospital.

Five of the wounded were taken to New Orleans' University Medical Center in critical condition for treatment of blast and burn injuries, with the remaining two going to East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie in stable condition, according to authorities.

There were reports that the blast could be heard and felt in homes as far away as St. James Parish.

Officials said the massive explosion may have occurred after cleaning chemicals on the platform ignited during some kind of maintenance operation.

They said it's also possible oil was leaking into the lake from the platform, which is used to transfer material from a number of wells in lake waters that are considered part of unincorporated Jefferson Parish.

But officials emphasized that the lake is much shallower than the waters surrounding the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, setting off a disastrous oil spill. They were hopeful that the shallowness of the lake would facilitate cleanup, though they acknowledged that winds associated with an approaching cold front could affect the cleanup or search efforts.

"Whatever is happening is going to be contained right around those structures," said Carlton Dufrechou, who is general manager of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and former head of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. "While it is imperative to get on it right away, this is not the Deepwater Horizon."

Can't see the video below? Click here.

 


Officials with Kenner and Jefferson Parish said they were inundated with phone calls and social media chatter about a loud boom in the lake starting about 7:18 p.m. They later determined it came from an oil platform that Clovelly Oil Co. of New Orleans acknowledged owning.

Clovelly's corporate counsel, M. Taylor Darden, said he could not immediately comment on what happened on the platform.

But local government officials said the fire was still burning hours after the rescue of seven crew members and the start of the search for the one peron reported to be missing.

East Bank Consolidated Fire Department Chief Dave Tibbetts said firefighters' efforts late Sunday were focused on getting to a valve that could shut off the flow of fuel. They would then work to cool the fuel source and let the material that had flowed through burn off.

Tibbetts said it was unclear how much material some storage tanks at the platform contained. The amount of fuel in those tanks could determine how long the platform fire would burn, he said.

Firefighting boats from St. Charles Parish as well as the Port of New Orleans were assisting Tibbetts' agency, he said.

At a 10 p.m. news briefing, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto said equipment and personnel from several government agencies — including various boats and a Coast Guard helicopter — were involved in the search for the missing crew member.

Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni said the parish's drinking water was not affected because that comes from the Mississippi River and not the lake.

Parish officials said their next briefing on the platform blast would occur about 8 a.m. Monday.

There was palpable concern in some Kenner neighborhoods about whether the blast had damaged homes or other properties. Some residents near the lake were using flashlights to assess their houses.

But Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn said there was no indication any homes in the municipality had been damaged, despite one household reporting that it was hit by pebbles at the time of the explosion.

Many people became aware of the platform blast when Kenner resident Roger Fernandez took live video of the flaming rig shortly after 8 p.m. and posted it on Facebook. He said he could feel the explosion from his home near the lake.

“If you heard a big explosion in north Kenner, there’s an oil rig close to the parish line that blew up," Fernandez could be heard saying breathlessly on the video. "It’s still hopping and flaming away. Not sure if anyone was on it though.”

He continued that he was two blocks away from the lake when the explosion happened.

“It shook me out of my couch,” he said. “I came running.”

By 9:30 p.m., his video had been shared nearly 2,000 times. Commenters said they also heard the explosion as far away as LaPlace, Luling, St. Rose, Norco, Destrehan and Boutte in St. Charles Parish, and at least one person in the St. James Parish community of Vacherie reported the same on social media.

George Branigan, a 58-year-old insurance agent, was still watching the flames from his third-floor balcony on Carmenere Street in the Chateau Lake subdivision, which backs up against Lake Pontchartrain, about 9:45 p.m.

Branigan said he was in his den watching television with his wife and stepdaughter when the explosion happened. "We heard something blow up, and it sounded like it was in my backyard," he said.

Can't see the video below? Click here.

 


At first, he said, he thought a transformer might have exploded, but he knew that wasn't the case when he saw everyone still had electricity.

But before he could walk outside to see what it was, he heard what sounded like pebbles hitting his house.

He didn't see any debris on his roof or in his yard, but he immediately noticed the rig was on fire.

"It was just burning tremendous flames," Branigan said. "It was just unbelievable."

A number of onlookers with cellphones in hand perched themselves atop a levee across from the Treasure Chest riverboat casino to watch authorities launch boats and position ambulances for the search and rescue mission.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

(504) 636-7433