Orono man shares experiences working on oil rig

Posted May 23, 2010, at 8:33 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Jesse McIntire was in a heliport in Fourchon, La., waiting to be flown out into the Gulf of Mexico to his drill rig, the Discoverer Spirit, when he first heard about the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20.

With the Horizon still burning, his helicopter was diverted on the way to Spirit, about 25 miles from the accident site. McIntire said he didn’t see the flames, but crew members on board Spirit at the time told him that the glow from the flames was visible on the horizon at night.

The explosion killed 11 crew members on board the Horizon, which sank in mile-deep gulf water, and the damaged well continues to spew millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, an environmental disaster that could eclipse 1989’s Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

“There’s a hollow feeling in your chest,” McIntire said quietly. “You hear about stuff like this happening in Africa, overseas. But for this to happen in the gulf … it’s not supposed to happen.”

McIntire, 29, is a chief mechanic on board the Discoverer Spirit. Though a different design than the Deepwater Horizon, Spirit’s role in the Gulf of Mexico is essentially the same as Horizon’s. It is a deepwater drilling vessel capable of working in depths as much as 10,000 feet to reach oil deposits four miles or more below the surface of the water.

A 2003 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, McIntire shipped out on merchant vessels and served on the crew of MMA’s training ship State of Maine before going to work for Transocean four years ago. He lives in Orono with his wife, Dara, and their 4-year-old daughter, Oriana.

But his work takes him away for regular tours to the gulf — 21 days on, 21 days off. That’s a strain on the young family. The transitions are hard, the going away and the coming back.

“We have to get to know each other all over again every 21 days; and she does it all while I’m gone,” he said. “But I won’t lie to you; the money’s quite good, better than what I could make at home. I love my family tremendously. At this point, this is the best I can do for them.”

On board the Discoverer Spirit, McIntire works 12-hour shifts, either noon to midnight or midnight to noon. He doesn’t run the drill rigs, but he and the other mechanics perform the regular maintenance and repairs on the pumps, valves, motors, cranes and other equipment in order to keep it all running.

“It’s a big rig and there’s a lot of equipment,” he said. “There’s always something going on.”

Big is not an exaggeration. It makes the engine room on MMA’s State of Maine look like a toy store, he said. Spirit is 835 feet long, 125 feet wide. The rig floor is 100 feet above the waterline, and the derrick is 80 by 80 feet and stands 226 feet above the rig floor.

“The derrick is almost 400 feet above the water,” he said. “The first time I saw it I was scared to death. This stuff is huge.”

Although he concedes that working on the oil rigs has the potential to be dangerous, and despite the deaths and injuries that resulted from the Horizon explosion, McIntire said the dangerous element of the job had been sensationalized.

Safety, he said, is essential onboard one of these rigs, and his employers have stressed safe operations during the time he has worked on the rig.

Every 21-day stint starts with a safety meeting which includes a detailed turnover report. Each daily shift change begins with a meeting where each of the crews discuss plans for the shift and any specific hazards associated with those operations.

“We all meet in the rig cinema. Each department goes through the planned operations, and we discuss contingencies and we adapt plans to deal with those contingencies as they arise,” he said. “Transocean, since I’ve worked there, has been very stringent about safety and environmental concerns. That’s what makes this so hard for me to handle.”

And it has been hard. The loss of life has been terrible and the environmental damage continues to grow each day.

“To see something like that — it makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing,” he said. “That makes me sick.”

The accident has had an effect back home, he said. Both he and Dara take more time to appreciate each other and their daughter. It also has made them think a little about the future. Dara McIntire said she would like to see her husband find a job in Maine, but as he prepares to head back to the gulf she said she feels confident even though she understands that the job can be dangerous. She points out that her husband has been recognized several times for his safety efforts.

“I do trust him and his abilities,” she said.

She said he has told her that the crews seem to be working together better, more as a team, since the accident.

There’s nobody working on the oil rigs who hasn’t been affected by the Horizon accident in one way or another, McIntire said.

“There’s a guy who’s worked on rigs since 1979; that’s before I was born. He lost a nephew on the Horizon; 28 years old, a young family. That’s terrible. I think about that. But I have a job to do.”

He just earned an MBA and his plan always has been to put that to use away from the rigs. The events around the Horizon may make that happen sooner than he had planned, he said.

Meanwhile, he heads back Wednesday for another 21-day tour on Discoverer Spirit, determined to keep himself and the rest of the crew safe.

“I’ve always had respect for the equipment and the people I deal with,” he said. “That respect has been strengthened. I have a new respect for my job, how it affects other people’s lives and their families and the environment.”

The atmosphere on the rigs has been really quiet since the accident, he said.

“Most of the rig hands get defensive now that they’re in the limelight. There’s a lot of scrutiny now, rightfully so. People are asking a lot of questions about drilling now. All very valid questions.”

“But, you know, they all drive to work every day,” he said. “There’s a market for that product. And that’s the driving factor.”

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