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Timbalier Bay; 1992

A half mile off the beach at Port Fouchron, La Fourche Parish, Louisiana, in 25 to 30 feet of Gulf of Mexico, lies a series of three salt domes that were discovered by Gulf Petroleum in 1929 with arial magnetics. Some poking around by Gulf never led to much until it shot two dimension refraction seismic data in the late 1930's. These salt domes were found to have enournous structural relief; Caillou Island Dome almost 5,000 feet.

By 1949 Gulf started finding shallow Pliocene sands drapped over the top of these salt extrusions and eventually deeper Miocene pinched out against the salt walls. These three seperate salt features/field designations have produced a little south of 3 G BO in their liftetimes and new things are still being done out there.

Since the 1940's there have been some stunning blowouts along this stretch of Louisiana, including South Pass, Main Pass and the great Bay Marchand blowout of 1970, to name a few. An outfit from Houston named Greenhill Petroleum re-enterd an old Gulf well in 1992 on the Timbalier Dome and made another whopper of a mess.

Boots & Coots, Inc. caught this job and I remember the stories and have got a little insight into that blowout that is interesting.

The Greenhill blowout occured on the Gulf S/P PP No. 250 well, originally drilled in 1968. An attempt was made by Greenhill to squeeze 7 inch casing failure at 2,650 feet TVD, the cemet was drilled out but the positive-test on the squeeze failed. A lot of the 2 7/8ths production tubing in the old well failed hydro-testing from corrosion and was replaced during the plug back attempt. No DH safety valve was run back in the production string when a packer was set and the well perforated for probable production thru tubing from 8,802-8, 830 feet TVD.

The well appeared to have no pressure changes after perforating and the wireline BOP's and lubricator were rigged down. There was no TIW valve was placed on the tubing at the surface while the tree was being prepared for installation. A hardline was rigged straight off the top of production tubing down the V-door to the barge rigs circulating tank. Several hours later the well surged and starting unloading. Slowly at first, then suddenly.

Murphy showed up, as he often does in these situations, and a chicksan joint laying on the rig floor cut out in the hard line blowing an estimated 1,400 barrels of high GOR oil, and no water, down the v-door, across the rig deck and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Though the annulus was isolated via the production packer down hole as soon as surface control was lost, in a predictable moment of panic, the rig crew closed the blind rams on the 2 7/8ths tubing. Bad tubing crimped, then split all up and down the inside of the BOP stack and control was lost thru the annulars. The rig was abandoned. A major environmental disaster was underway. The Coast Guard immmediately initiated its spill prevention plan, booms were deployed, skimmers were working around the clock and as oil reached East Timblalier Island, mopping oil up out of the marsh began.

James Tuppen with Boots & Coots led off the response with Joe Carpenter and Danny Strong in attendance. A work barge with high pressure water pumps to prevent ignition of the blowout flow arrived within two days. Boots & Coots hands began clearing the rig floor and installed make shift canopy, made with tarps, to get the oil flow going straight down the rig barge keyway to assist in containment and skimmer recovery. Gas began accumulating under the canopy so it was rigged down. The gas to oil ratio began increasing and around noon on October 1st the well ignited from static electricity.

James, Joe and Danny ran to the rail and jumped into the Gulf of Mexico.

They were picked up immediately by the Coast Guard. Thank God for that because Big Joe couldn't swim a lick. Had the water diluge not been set up prior to accessing the rig floor these men would have certainly been burned.

The ignition burned oil contained within the booms surrounding the rig barge. The value of the rig barge was placed at less than a million dollars so the fire was allowed to burn in the belief the massive oil clean up would cost more than that.

The derrick fell within 8 hours and layed down the v-door perfectly.

Martin Kelly and Larry Flak were helicoptered in from Houston later that evening. John Wright initated spudding a relief well within 4 days of initial loss of surface control. I seem to recall there being a sort of competitiveness between John and Larry and and the surface control boys as to who would accomplish the kill first and within 8 hours of spudding the relief well John was WOC on surface casing.

Boots & Coots re-oriented its pump and work barges up- wind and began debris removal and cutting away the derrick with cutting torches. The plan to float the drilling rig barge away from the BOP stack was not well received by the Coast Guard for fear of additional environmenta harm and two full days were lost trying to pull the rig barge away with an array of tug boats under the CG's direct orders.

James and Martin put their feet down, the Coast Guard consented, ballast in the rig barge was pumped off and the rig floated away from the stack. Another work barge arrived with B&C's athey wagon and a contracted dozer. A venturi tube over the blowout flow allowed the men to unbolt the BOP stack with the well still on fire. The BOP stack was then picked up off the B section with a crane.

A Halliburton high pressure jet cutter was mounted on the athey wagon boom, backed into place and and the tubing was cut below the split. The BOP stack was then removed.

A tubing clamp was installed on the tubing and a crane picked up (stretched) the tubing just high enough to keep the downhole packer set, a wrap around tubing hanger was installed with a pack off assembly, the tubing was lowered back into the hanger and the seals all checked.

A three ram capping stack was built by Wellcat in Houston containing inverted slips to keep the stack from being blown off the well and for extra measure, the middle pipe rams were also inverted (turned upsided down) to keep the capping stack in place and as further protection when the well was shut in. The stack was snubbed down over the flow and bolted down to the original B section. With the well still on fire during capping virtually all hydrocarbons were being burned off.

When the blind rams on the capping stack were closed the flow ceased and the well was under control. SITP at the top of the capping stack was over 3,500 PSI. The tubing was then bullheaded with 600 some odd barrels of sea water and HEC (hydroxyethyl cellulose) pills. HEC is a terrific sort of thickening agent in high chloride water and helps bring sea water to higher density. It can turn water into thick gunk. Sort of like a shit shot, but without the shit.

Surface control was lost on this well on September 29, 1992. It was capped and killed ten days later, on October 10th. An estimated 10,000 barrels of oil was lost, over 9,000 of those barrels were believed to be burned off after ignition occured on October 1 and because the well was allowed to burn during the capping effort.

A week after B&C was released Danny Strong's received a box in the Houston office with his hardhat in it. He lost it when he went over the rail. It was the one he wore in Kuwait and it meant somethiong to him. In appreciation Danny sent the young man a new, white Boots and Coots windbreaker with the the man's name on it.


Before the press, Coots Matthews (1923-201o) could always be quoted as saying, "Respect the things you fear and it can save your life."

When asked by an unsuspecting bystander what it took to be a an oilwell firefighter, over mass quantities of whiskey, Coots would like to say... "big nuts."

He was a contemplative man, Coots; not afraid to let you inside now and then.

He once told me there were three things about his profession that he didn't much like, that scared him, and that was unloading a drum of dynamite that has been backed into a fire and did not go off, wearing an air pack on an H2S well and static electricity. Coots was almost killed in Algeria in 1961 when the blowing well they were working on ignited from static electricity with him in the derrick, tying off the block.

I had to do some scary things once in a while, but nothing like these men; not even close. Not like jumping over the rail into the Gulf of Mexico.

     A Louisiana Brown Pelican 

As a sudent of the well control profession I am often, almost aways, struck with the personal risks taken with the environment in mind, to protect as much of it as possible, as fast as possible and to minimized the damage the well control event was causing. I suspect over the past 100 years or so billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas have been saved from fouling the earth by brave men with a job to be done. They...cared.



  • Personal converstations with James Tuppen, Joe Carpenter (1937-1995), Danny Strong (1958-1995), Larry Flak (1955-2009) and Martin Kelly (1949-1995).

  • Alberton, Paul Lt (jg) US Coast Guard, "Well Blowout On Inland Barge Rig, "presented and part of proceedings of IADC Well Control Conference of the Americas, Nov. 1993.

  • Flak, L., Kelly, M., "Blowout control: Response, intervention and management series Part 10- "Blowout surface intervention methods, "World Oil, November 1994.

  • Personal files, incld. original photographs.


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