Nearly one year after an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and led to the nation's worst offshore oil spill, the Coast Guard honored a supply vessel's crew who helped rescue 115 survivors.
During a ceremony Friday at an air station in Belle Chasse, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Sally Brice-O'Hara presented awards to nine crew members of the Damon B. Bankston and about two dozen helicopter pilots, rescue swimmers and other Coast Guard personnel who responded the April 20 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
The awards include the Coast Guard's certificate of valor and distinguished public service award.
"We pay tribute to their readiness, to their quick thinking, to their expert ship handling," Brice-O'Hara said of the supply vessel's crew. "Today we honor you for your willingness to act. We recognize you for a job well done."
Alwin Landry, who commanded the Bankston on the night of the explosion, thanked the Coast Guard crews that flew in and tended to injured workers. Landry, who received the Coast Guard's certificate of valor, recalled the relief he felt when he spotted the first flashing light in the sky, signaling help had arrived.
"They came in low and strong, one after another, hovering with pinpoint accuracy," he said. "I cannot speak highly enough of their professionalism and efficiency."
The Bankston was tethered to the Deepwater Horizon, awaiting a load of drilling mud to be transferred from the rig, when the crew heard the jarring sound of methane gas and crude oil shooting up the well bore and through the rig's riser. Mud rained down on them before the first explosion erupted on the platform, engulfing the rig.
As workers jumped from the rig to escape the fire and plunged into the Gulf, Landry gave the orders to disconnect the Bankston and launch rescue boats to pluck workers from the water, according to his award's citation. Bankston's crew steered the boats around burning debris to save workers who jumped off the rig, while others who evacuated in lifeboats found refuge on the supply boat. Seventeen workers with life-threatening injuries were treated on the vessel before Coast Guard helicopters flew them to shore.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Craig Murray, one of the pilots of the first helicopter to arrive, said he is certain more workers would have perished that night if the Bankston's crew hadn't been there to act.
"They are the true heroes," Murray said.
The crowd at Friday's ceremony observed a moment of silence for the 11 workers who died in the blast. Photographs of each victim adorned a poster in front of the stage.
Officials from Bankston owner Tidewater Inc., rig owner Transocean Ltd. and well owner BP attended the ceremony. Tidewater wouldn't allow the vessel's crew members to be interviewed Friday about the events of April 20 because of pending litigation over the disaster. Alwin Landry, however, said he and his crew members were humbled by the awards.
"For a heroic act to occur, you have to have the right people in the right place at the right time, and they have to do the right thing," Tidewater CEO Dean Taylor said.