Historic Blunders

8th October 2004 at 01:00
It's the sort of thing that happens in cartoons. Someone makes a hole in the bottom of a lake, and all the water drains out. But in the real world, it could never happen. Or could it?

In November 1980, five engineers working on an oil rig in Lake Peigneur, Louisiana, assumed not. Theirs was one of many rigs in the lake, an expanse of fresh water not much more than a metre deep but covering 1,300 acres and incorporating Jefferson Island, home to the Live Oak Gardens botanical park.

Having drilled down 1,227 feet (about 374 metres) without incident, they had no reason to believe that this job would be different from any other.

Until their rig began to tilt. Fearing it would collapse, they radioed Texaco to say they were heading for the shore. And not a minute too soon.

A whirlpool was beginning to form around their rig and as it whirled a crater developed, which would eventually measure more than 60 metres across. And into the crater went the water in the lake - all 1.5 billion gallons of it. As the lake emptied, so too did a canal connecting it to the Gulf of Mexico. And into the maelstrom went two drilling rigs, each worth $5 million, along with a dock, a dozen barges, a tugboat and 70 acres of Jefferson Island. But where did they go to, exactly?

Into the Diamond Crystal Salt Mine, a complex of tunnels and chambers whose 24-metre high roofs were supported by pillars of solid salt. Solid, that is, until they came into contact with all that water. The mine, along with all the plant it contained, was destroyed, and the 50 employees who were underground at the time only just escaped.

How did such a calamity come about? It turned out that Texaco knew about the salt mine but, uncertain as to its precise location, had contacted the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had, in turn, contacted Diamond Crystal.

But somewhere along the line, there was a communications failure. Which is why parts of the once shallow Lake Peigneur are now more than 395 metres deep.

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