By Judge Brian Addington, Kingsport
I like to fish. It was one of the first outdoorsy things that my dad and granddad taught me. I typically use natural bait or spinners and love to fish for trout, bluegill and bass.
My love for fishing, though, pales in comparison to that of Eric Fenstemaker, Program Coordinator in the Bureau’s Knoxville office. Eric is a big-time crappie fisherman. He has developed a great technique, which he puts to use on the crappie tournament trail (which does not mean “bad tournament trail”).
There’s nothing like getting up, driving to the lake, putting a boat in the water and then spending a relaxing day fishing.
Thirty-seven years ago today, Leonce Viator, Jr.,and his nephew probably had similar thoughts as they started out catfishing on Lake Peigneur in New Iberia, Louisiana on Nov. 20, 1980. Lake Peigneur was 11-feet deep and known for its catfish. The Jefferson Island Salt Mine was adjacent and underneath the lake. This salt mine had operated for years.
What Mr. Viator didn’t know was that Texaco Oil Company had started drilling for oil on the lake. It seems that areas where salt deposits are numerous also hold pockets of oil. The oil rig was approximately 150 feet tall, and a full crew worked it. Unfortunately, when the engineers set the oil rig, they used the wrong coordinates. Instead of missing the salt mine below, they drilled directly into it. Suddenly, the drill lurched to a stop, and moments later the oil rig started to lean over. The drill team quickly evacuated the rig.
Hundreds of feet below, Lake Peigneur started pouring into the salt mine. Soon the miners discovered the water and actuated their evacuation plan ̶ a plan they had rehearsed many times. As the water ate away at the hole in the mine, the hole grew larger. The immense pressure of the water above widened the hole, which created a whirlpool. The miners rushed to the surface elevator and slowly evacuated eight men at a time.
On the surface, the oil rig crew watched as the oil rig turned on its side and disappeared down into the whirlpool. The suction was so strong that it started eating away at the land surrounding the lake and began pulling barges that were on the lake down into the mine.
At this point, Mr. Viator knew he had a problem. He raced his boat in an effort to escape the whirlpool. Fortunately, a barge interrupted the current for a moment, so he was able to make it to shore. He and his nephew jumped out and tied the boat to a tree. They then ran to higher ground and turned to see the boat and tree pulled down into the whirlpool. Eventually, 11 barges sank into the whirlpool (nine later resurfaced).
Lake Peigneur was never the same. The whirlpool was so strong it actually caused a canal to run backward and pulled seawater into the lake. This created a 164-feet tall waterfall for several days. Once the water filled the mine, geysers shot over 400 feet into the air as the pressure equalized. What was once a shallow, freshwater lake was now a deep, saltwater one.
Fortunately, the workers in the mine made it to safety, as the oil rig men did. Their preparedness saved their lives. I stress in my articles that safety rules and action plans can save lives. Families were not destroyed because of quick-thinking, well-trained workers.