Barge Crew Still Missing

CYPREMORT POINT, LA - A tugboat carrying two barges struck an underwater gas line Thursday afternoon in West Cote Blanche Bay triggering an explosion that killed three, severely burned one and left three others missing, officials said.

The tugboat was transporting two barges - one holding chemically treated lumber and the other holding a mechanical crane and fuel - when it somehow struck a gas line belonging to Gulfport Energy Corp.

The resulting explosion, which occurred around noon, was on a scale never before seen in the area, sending flames upward of 200-feet high and several hundred yards wide, officials and witnesses reported.

"You should have seen it, man. That fire reached almost to the clouds," said Neil Scelfo, who was on a boat about four miles away when the explosion occurred.

Two crew members were rescued earlier in the day, but crews from various agencies worked late into the evening Thursday in an attempt to locate those still missing. As of 6 p.m., rescue crews were able to get onto the barge but still unable to go below deck due to intense heat and smoke.

The tugboat, which belonged to Central Boat Rentals Inc. of Berwick and two barges, which belonged to Athena Construction of Morgan City, were carrying a tugboat driver, a crane operator and six crew hands, none of whom have been named.

Upon contact with the gas line, each of the vessels immediately were engulfed by flames. The tugboat and barge carrying the lumber detached and continued to burn as they drifted away. Crews on scene extinguished them first.

The other barge, roughly 1,000 or more yards away, remained over the gas line and burned for several hours before it was contained. Officials believe those missing may have remained on this barge in a hideaway below deck. It is unclear whether any of them could have survived the intense and prolonged heat.

Gulfport Energy Corporation issued a statement Thursday stating that while all of their employees had been accounted for, they still were attempting to gather information about their contractors at the scene.

"We are deeply concerned for all those involved acknowledging the severity of the situation," said Gulfport Chief Executive Officer Jim Palm in the release.

As a precaution, the company temporarily ceased all production from the field, although no damage had been reported to its production facilities there.

The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation and Safety Board are conducting an investigation into how the incident occurred, while local agencies such as Louisiana State Police HAZMAT, Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office and the St. Mary Parish Sheriff's Office handle the rescue and recovery efforts.

Hebert addressed family members of the missing, who had gathered near a command center in Cypremort Point. Many were angry, confused and scared.

"I am very sorry. This is a terrible tragedy," Hebert told them as he explained what he knew.

As Hebert told them of the explosion, a look of utter despair crept across the face of Kimberly Davis, who believed her husband Albert Davis Jr. was onboard.

Gilbert Alexis, of Franklin, stood nearby. Earlier he'd expressed fear that his oldest son, 28-year-old Cleveland Tardy, was among those still missing.

Alexis said his son was a crew-hand on board. He'd been working in the area for months driving pylons and working on rigs in the area.

"It's rough," Alexis said.

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