5 years on, empty graves, full hearts for Gulf survivors

AP News
|
Posted: Apr 18, 2015 12:11 PM
5 years on, empty graves, full hearts for Gulf survivors

JONESVILLE, La. (AP) — Courtney Kemp was getting dressed for work when husband Wyatt walked in and sat down. He didn't speak, but she could tell something was weighing on him.

She knew that things hadn't been going well on the job, but Wyatt never wanted to trouble her with details. They'd talked often about the risks of working on an oil rig 41 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico; Wyatt had always insisted that the most dangerous part was the helicopter ride to the Deepwater Horizon. In just a few days, the 27-year-old derrickhand would be leaving for his next three-week hitch.

Courtney asked what was wrong.

"I just want you to know that if something happened to me ... I don't want you to be by yourself," he told her. "And I don't want the girls to grow up without somebody to be their father."

"If something did, I wouldn't be able to get over it," she insisted. "I don't know how I would go on."

Courtney began to cry, and Wyatt pulled her into a tight embrace.

"It's all going to be OK," he assured her.

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana, the Gulf has shown remarkable resilience. So, too, have the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in the disaster.

But the shockwaves of April 20, 2010, continue to send out ripples across the gulf of time.

Children too young to have any real memories of their fathers ask to hear stories and make pilgrimages to empty graves. The family of one victim recently celebrated the birth of his first grandchild; the mother of another is still coming to grips with the bitter fact that her youngest son will never give her grandkids.

These survivors are doing their best to balance the memory of the men they loved and the reality that each of their own lives is an ongoing journey.

Consider the road traveled by a young widow named Courtney.

___

By the spring of 2010, Courtney and Wyatt had been together nearly half their lives.

Shortly after high school graduation, they married and moved away. But after just a couple of years, they were drawn back to Jonesville, and to their comfortable "home" church.

Wyatt found a job as a roustabout on a land-based oil rig, then made the jump to the Deepwater Horizon, the "pride of the Transocean fleet." They built a home amid the ironing board-flat pastures and croplands outside town, and had two daughters — Kaylee and Maddison.

Church remained a constant in their lives.

The Sunday before he left for his last hitch on the rig, Wyatt answered the pastor's invitation to approach the altar. When Courtney asked if everything was OK, he replied simply: "Everyone needs prayer at some time or another."

He'd had just a few weeks with newborn Maddison before it was time to return to the Deepwater Horizon.

Around noon on April 20, Wyatt called from the Deepwater's tower. It had been a rough hitch, and he was ready to come home.

"I'll see y'all tomorrow," he said.

At 4:30 the next morning, Courtney was jolted awake by the telephone. A woman from Transocean said there had been an accident.

The couple's pastor was there when Courtney learned that Wyatt was dead. He asked if she remembered the altar call.

"Wyatt told me that he wanted to be so close to God that he couldn't get any closer," he said.

___

Ten days after the explosion, Wyatt's memorial was held at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. Roughneck Dustin Robertson was among those who came to pay their respects.

The day of the accident, Robertson was working on BP's Thunder Horse platform, about 30 miles from the Deepwater. He watched helplessly as the flames shooting from the stricken rig lit up the horizon.

At the church, Robertson listened as family and friends eulogized the man who read the Bible to his girls and would sing Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five" as he laced up his work boots. Sitting there, Robertson knew that it could easily be his wife and daughters crying in that front pew.

As the investigations and lawsuits dragged on, Wyatt's insistence that she remarry kept echoing in Courtney's mind. She asked God to "send me the right guy."

Following the disaster, Robertson had decided to start a Bible study on his rig. He asked Kemp's widow if she would share his "testimony."

In March 2011, Robertson invited her to lunch so he could show her how he'd worked Wyatt's story into his lesson plan.

When they parted, Robertson — who was separated from his wife — asked if he could call Courtney from time to time; she said yes. He called later that afternoon and asked if he could take her out on a date that Saturday.

They drove all over Jonesville and down the road to Jena, Robertson's hometown, forgetting even to stop to eat.

"We talked for hours," she says. "And it was easy."

Three months later, Courtney told her father she thought "Dusti" was "the one."

There was just one thing: If they were going to be together, Robertson would have to leave the oilfield.

___

The couple were married on April 14, 2012. Robertson is now youth minister at the church where he first saw Courtney.

They live in the spacious home Courtney and Wyatt built. In November, Corbin Grace Robertson joined her older sisters, Kaylee, 8, and Maddison, 5.

Wyatt is still very present. Photos of him with the girls sit on shelves and in bookcases. A miniature of a memorial statue erected at Transocean's Houston headquarters stands on the family room mantel. A bronzed hard hat with Wyatt's name on the brim sits in a glass box beside the dining room table.

Kaylee and Maddison call Robertson "Daddy." Wyatt is simply "daddy in heaven."