Can You Imagine Yourself Being There?

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I should have called this column, “Down the hatch!”

Why? When you first read it you may find it hard to swallow. You may even think I’m pulling your leg. But I’m not. I swear I am not. Even though it seems impossible, this really happened.

Did it ever! When it comes to things that happened during my lifetime, and were close enough to where I was living at the time for me to feel it had happened right next door, it tops the list.

And yet I’ve never met anyone who has heard of it.

Never!

How can that be? 

Don’t ask me. I’ve been asking that question ever since a day in December 1980, when I casually picked up a magazine and read about something that totally floored me then - and will totally floor you now.

Part of what made it so incredible was that Lolly and I had not heard about it on the evening news. And when I asked people at work about it, or people in the neighborhood, they hadn’t heard about it either. And yet, if you go out on the net and check on it, there it is - big as life, and twice as amazing.

Okay, here we go. Let me set the scene for you. Picture a pair of fishing buddies sitting in a small flat-bottomed boat in serenely quiet Lake Peigneur, about 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. It is 6:30 on a November morning and the weather is as perfect as it gets in Southern Louisiana, not too hot, not too cold, and - most of all - not pouring down rain.

The two men have been enjoying themselves. The fishing in the kidney shaped lake, about a mile wide at its widest point and 11 feet deep in the middle, is good. They are anchored in the shade of some trees, near the bank, in about 5 feet of water. 

All is peace and quiet, but then one of them sees something odd. While his attention has been focused on his bobber, waiting for that next strike, the water along the bank just 10 feet away has dropped a foot.

“Nah!,” he tells himself. “Couldn’t be!”

But even as his watches, the water level drops another 6 inches. He eyes the muddy lake bottom, now just 3 feet below the boat. As he stares at it in disbelief, the water continues to drop. He knows something is happening, but what?

What indeed? The two fishing buddies are not the only ones destined to be surprised that day. In fact, they may well have been the two least surprised people in the entire area.

Far more surprised than them at that moment was the drilling crew on a rig out in the middle of the lake. For several weeks they have been drilling toward a rich pool of oil believed to be located around a salt dome located far below the lake. Earlier that morning - at 4:30 a.m. - everything seemed fine. Their 14-inch drill bit was grinding away, cutting its way smoothly downward. All seemed to be going according to plan.

But then, as the drill bit reached the 1220-foot level the heavy motor driving it began to labor. And just as it hit 1228 feet the 14-inch bit cutting its way through the strata above the salt dome suddenly seized up. And then...

But here we need to pause for a moment. To understand what is about to happen we have to take a glance at a little oil geology. In the oceans of the world, even today, there are untold trillions of small organisms living out their lives. Both plant and animal organisms of all sizes blossom into life, live for a time, and die, as is the fate of all living things. 

When they die they gradually sink through cold and shadowy water to the deepest regions of the sea, there to be covered by sediments which over time grow thicker and thicker. Eons pass. Propelled by tectonic forces, the plate atop which the sediments lie is driven sideways until a stupendous underground collision with another plate forces it either up or down. 

If it is driven downward, it is subjected to immense heat and pressure and the remains of countless creatures in the sediments are cooked into crude oil. And then, in the way of all things on our planet, the cycle reverses and the layers of sediment begin to move upward, now solid layers of sedimentary rock rich with oil.

If the layer holding the oil is porous - like sandstone - the oil begins to migrate upward through it. Being lighter than any water trapped in the rock, and lighter than the rock itself, the oil seeps ever higher and higher. In some cases it finds it way to the surface, forming black pools, mixing with clay and sand, reacting with air and water, and becoming semisolid tar sands. 

In cases where the rock is less porous, like shale, the oil stays trapped, forming - for one thing - oil shale. But in the case that interests us today, the oil escapes the layer in which it was formed and slowly oozes higher and higher until it strikes a layer through which it cannot pass, sometimes a layer of rock salt. And there it stays, often as a pool of oil surrounding a rounded salt dome far beneath the surface, but betrayed by a low surface rise.

So much for geology. Now for an incredible tale.

The target of the drill bit on the oil rig in the middle of the lake was a suspected pool of oil surrounding a salt dome, much like the fabulous 153 million barrel Spindletop oil strike, which occurred near Port Arthur, Texas, where I lived at the time I read about all this. But, as I said, at the 1228-foot level the drill bit seized up. The experienced drilling crew worked long and hard, doing their best to free it, trying everything, but to no avail. The heavy, 14-inch diameter drill bit was stuck fast. On top of that, the huge drilling rig began to tilt to one side. 

At first just a little. And then farther. And farther...

Off the rig and onto the shore ran one wise drilling crew.

Farther the rig tilted. Farther...

And then all hell broke loose. Their eyes the size of sewer covers, the crew watched a towering, $5 million dollar drilling platform and derrick turn turtle and disappear into a lake that was only 11 feet deep. Then the water where the rig had stood a minute before began to turn, slowly at first, but faster and faster until it became a raging whirlpool a quarter of a mile in diameter.

Back in the boat things went crazy as the tiny craft was drawn toward the whirlpool. The outboard engine roared and...

And you ain’t heard nothing yet, Johnny! 

Wait till next week.

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