We left off last week at the point where a flat-bottomed rowboat, its outboard engine racing, was fighting a current of water dragging it toward a raging, quarter mile wide whirlpool in the middle of what was supposed to be an 11-foot deep lake.
If anyone on the shore of the mile wide lake saw what was happening to the tiny flat-bottomed boat at that moment, it is not recorded. There was far too much going on for anyone except the two men in the boat to take much notice of their troubles. A $5 million drilling rig had just turned turtle and disappeared into the same whirlpool that was dragging the boat toward it.
Far below the lake, in the immense galleries of an operating salt mine into which the oil-drilling rig had accidentally bored a large hole, 51 men had reported for work that morning as usual. Junius Gaddison, the mine’s master electrician, was working on the 1,300-foot level of the mine when he heard something odd. He looked up and saw a deep stream of water coming at him.
Gaddison must have been one cool customer, Johnny!
Instead of running as many men would have, he yelled a warning to the shift foreman who happened to be nearby, and then began flashing the mine lights in a warning pattern.
The pattern said, “Get out! Now!”
Workers at the 1,300-foot level grabbed the phone and told the man in charge of the elevator to lower it – fast! They also notified the foreman at the 1,500-level, two hundred feet farther down, to evacuate.
Meanwhile up on the lake, as the outboard on the small boat strained, unable to gain ground against the suction, a much larger vessel was having an even worse problem. An hour before, a tug towing a string of 12 large barges had quietly passed through the lake on its way to the Gulf of Mexico via a 12-mile-long canal connecting the lake to the Gulf.
Calmly proceeding down the canal, which was lined with ocean-going shrimp boats, the captain and crew of the tug were amazed to see the flow of the water in the canal begin to reverse. The captain revved up his engines, and at first made headway toward the Gulf, but then the backward flow grew so great he could no longer make any progress with the long string of barges dragging him backward, even when pushed his control forward to maximum.
Back on the lake, things were getting worse. Along one side of the lake was located a fine piece of land, Jefferson Island, home to a beautiful botanical park, Live Oak Gardens. The owner of the park, stood watching in disbelief as fast-rushing water began cutting large chunks out of his beautiful island and swallowing them whole, along with trees, docks, and debris.
Meanwhile, a quarter-mile beneath the surface of the earth, as water roared into the vast reaches of the salt mine, Wilfred Johnson, working on the 1,300-foot level noticed a bare six inches of water beneath his tractor as the warning lights flashed. Just one minute later, the water was two feet deep and rising all across the floor of a 100-foot wide cavern.
Johnson joined the other 50 men waiting to be evacuated from deep underground, all of them only too well aware of the situation facing them. Their only hope of survival was an elevator that held only eight men at a time. That meant that at least six trips to the surface, up a narrow shaft in a cable-drawn elevator, would be needed to evacuate the fast filling chambers of the mine. At last the elevator reached the bottom. Men loaded aboard. The first trip upward began, not a soul uttering a word.
Back in the canal, the tugboat captain had lost his struggle with the rearward rushing water. The tug and its 12 barges were now moving faster upstream than the tug had been able to tow them seaward. Aware that he would soon be back in the lake, the captain struggled with the decision whether or not to abandon the barges to their unknown fate and save himself and his crew.
Moments later, the decision was taken out of his hands as he spied the lake coming up fast. As the barges and tug swept backward into the lake, the captain decided to release the tugs.
Meanwhile, the men in the rowboat, still struggling to stay out of the whirlpool, thought they were goners. The water behind them was too shallow to float their tiny boat and they dared not move into deeper water. But as they watched, the barges emerged from the canal and charged toward the immense swirl of water.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” one of them later said. He considered jumping overboard into thick cloying mud, watching in horror as the cable on the last barge snapped and it was swept into the whirlpool, prophesying his fate.
“It swallowed it in seconds,” he said. “Like a big fish eating its lunch.”
Then another barge snapped its cable and went down the hungry maw. But because the barges were now between the tiny boat and the whirlpool there was now enough room, and just enough water, for him to make a dash for the shoreline. Using every last ounce of power their little outboard could summon, they ran the gauntlet, made it to the shore, and leapt off. Safe! But as they turned they saw a sight such as eyes had never before seen on this planet.
One by one, the remaining 10 large barges shot out of the canal, were upended, and disappeared out of sight. Then came the tug, vainly struggling until the last minute, at which point the brave captain and crew leapt ashore and abandoned it to its fate.
Down below, the last elevator load of miners started on its way up. Foot by foot it climbed the narrow shaft. As it reached top and the miners ran from the cage they heard a deep, rumbling, roar coming up the shaft behind them. Over their shoulders they watched as elevator, derrick, motor, cables, and cage were blasted 400 feet into the air by a solid piston of water.
When the day ended, gone were two drilling rigs; 12 barges; a tug; a barge loading dock; a large, two-story house; 50 acres of Jefferson Island; endless numbers of trees; and one large salt mine. In their place was a 150-foot waterfall as three and half billion gallons of seawater flowed up the canal to fill the now 1,300-foot deep lake.
Nine of the barges came back up the next day. There is no record of whether or not the lake burped as it gave them up.
But not a life was lost, Johnny. Not one.
Tell me that fact isn’t stranger than fiction!