Vietnamese swamp-ghosts on a Louisiana rig 1988

Ken LaRive

October 26, 2011

It started in 1983. The oilfield suddenly crashed and burned. After years of wondering why in the middle of it all, ...we knew nothing. Not even my many bosses, local newspapers or oilfield publications... Louisiana banks went bust, contacts diminished, and I went from sales to the field and then in the unemployment line confused and angry. I had a family to feed.

We know now in hindsight that Ronald Ragan used the oilfield to destroy the USSR. With disinformation, a Russian Vietnam called Afghanistan, they fought to secure and protect an unfinished pipe-line. It had overextended them, and it all came to a head with an artificially deflated oil price, stimulated by our Saudi friends. They did this by opening up valves and flooding the market. As the price of a bbl of oil dropped, Russia drowned in debt, as the American Oilfield simultaneously went belly up. Louisiana and Texas disintegrated to bear bones, just as we as a nation are on the verge of doing right now. Living though those times it seems evident that it wouldn't take much more to send us there... and it is just as intentional today as it was back then.

One local entrepreneur made a bit of money selling a new bumper sticker. It read, LAST ONE OUT TURN OUT THE LIGHTS. He was one of the very few remaining profiteers. Most others were in dire straits.

In my world, I did anything I could to put food on the table, from house painting to cutting grass, then one day I got a phone call from an old friend. He heard of my plight and asked if I would be willing to relocate to the Cayman Islands for a couple of years with my family. Closing my home, we put everything in storage and left, sight unseen....

But this isn't a story of our adventures there, but an event that happened soon after returning home. I've refreshed my memory of those times from my 1988 journal, and would like to share it. I mention what happened above to set the stage for what followed.

With only about ten percent of the rigs active, some drilling companies moth-balled the smaller ones right where they had last drilled. One of these had been sitting idle in the middle of the Atchafalaya Swamp for nearly three years. There is a set procedure to stack a rig, and I can't say I understand its intricacies, but it can sometimes take weeks to get it up and running again. No matter how hard they try, however, salt damage and humidity might lock it up beyond repair, and those big mud pumps and engines would have to be replaced.

The boat ride was approximately two hours from the landing flat out. With coordinates and maps the operator sent engineers and technicians to survey the situation to get it reanimated, but long before they got there they could see it already was. They couldn't get into the narrowly dredged quarter mile long barge channel because of several Lafitte fishing boats tied end to end. From that distance they heard the motors running smoothly, saw that the lights were on, and even smelled cooking. They also reported that they could hear children's laughter... a crowd of men could be seen observing them on the hello-pad.

The small group of company men turned their aluminum flat-bottom work-boat around and made it back to the landing where their radio calls had the local authorities waiting. They reported that it looked like several Vietnamese families had taken up residence there. Nets were being repaired on the rig floor and pipe deck, and the galley and living quarters seemed to be alive with people. It was speculated that it was being used as a base for fishermen between the Gulf of Mexico and their mainland home.

It wasn't until the next day when the first recon of the area was organized, first by plane and then by several police boats who had a lot of trouble locating it. The engineers stayed at the landing waiting for their people from Houston, also thinking there might be hostility, and by mid-afternoon some of the authorities radioed back with strange news. They had finally arrived, but could find no one on the location.

Suddenly this inland barge rig was flooded with oilfield personnel of every kind, including the operator's front office. Questions and accusations came from every direction with the attempt to find answers as to how this could have happened, and who was responsible on both sides of the fence. But there was so much internal ciaos from demotions to layoffs in those days, responsibility was easily dismissed.

An insurance company representative combed over the situation from his perspective, writing it all down on his long yellow note pad, but there was no precedence for such a happening... Millions of dollars of equipment had been used unlawfully, and seemingly for a long time, but they could find no damage.

It looked like the engines have been well maintained, and at first glance it was thought the use had been minimal, until they opened the freezer and coolers. It reeked of seafood. IADC reports indicated that it was ordered that everything was to be disinfected from top to bottom, new linen, new mattresses, and all fresh water tanks purged and sanitized. It took weeks.

It was found that the fresh water tank was nearly full with about a week's worth of diesel. It seemed to indicate that whomever had made this their home thought they would be staying awhile longer.

After several weeks of maintenance, service hands were called out to rig up their equipment, and my mud company sent out a fluid hand. He ordered chemicals and supplies to mix spud, but never got the chance to start. A week later I showed up and directed the hands to start cleaning pits and to mix Premium Wyoming Bentonite with a bit of lime to flocculate, and we finally spudded in.

The tool pusher was an old friend of mine. We had worked on several projects together. One day in his office he opened his bottom drawer and pulled out a black and white teddy bear. He had found it in his locker. He put it on the sill of his window and it was the topic of a lot of speculative conversation. It was about the only evidence that the engineers were right, that women and children had also found this home.

Strange, but it is after the fact you start putting pieces together... I remember being on the rig floor one night and seeing lights in the swamp, but when I pointed it out to a roustabout it was dark again. Another time on the shale shaker I could have sworn I saw someone observing us from a distance, but it got too dark to see.

Several other times we observed the lights of boats moving slowly on the ship channel, but as they flashed spotlights, no one gave it much thought. It wasn't unusual to see gator hunters, even craw fisherman looking at their fresh water traps, even at night.

We TDed the first interval without a problem, and the casing hands were called out to run it. It was a full house, and my turn to relax. I had supper with the day crew, watched a bit of TV, and with permission called home on the Company Man's phone, in those days before cell phones...

I had a room to myself that night, as the cementer was up on the rig floor prepping for a cement job. I turned out the lights and don't remember a thing until about five o'clock when someone came into my room and turned on the lights.

"Ken! Wake up! You okay?"

"Okay?" I said in a trance.

"Get up, get dressed... Something has happened you got' a see."

I pulled my coveralls on, my boots, and went out into the hall rubbing my eyes. The entire crew, both day and night, both company reps, and all service men were standing in the TV room and hall. I said to myself. "Oh crap, there has been an accident!" but when I got there I saw only sober faces, nervous laughter, and something one doesn't see often with these seasoned men, fear.

In the dead of night, while I and about nine other men slept, and about 20 or so men were busy on the rig floor, our refrigerators, our walk in freezers, our produce cooler, all of it, had been emptied. It had been done quickly, and without a sound. No one saw or heard a thing.

As the sun started to light up the horizon we all made a thorough search of the area to determine how this could have happened. We found one of the two boat skippers sound asleep on his boat. He had slept with his radio on, and thought that the reason he had not heard anything. He seemed the most nervous and agitated of all. They must have tied up next to him, and it was amazing he hadn't awakened, he said. It was dismissed that it could have been done overland.

Other things were missing too, like a large box of Community Coffee, toilet paper, napkins, paper towels... and suddenly the real gravity of this deed hit home. How many men did it take to do such a thing was questioned and determined by the same men who had stocked it just weeks before. Two hours for six men was the estimation... wait a minute I said in that meeting, are you saying 12 man hours? That's right they said... or it is possible that a 10 man relay could do it, if they humped, in about 1/2 hours. A ten man relay from the kitchen, down the hall, down the stairs, to an awaiting boat big enough to haul, and all done without a sound... it seemed impossible. Still does.

The rig was shut down, something I had never seen before without a major mechanical failure or a spectacular personnel accident. We ate defrosted ham-roll on white bread that was left behind, but could not find one bottle of mustard. Then one of the hands said it out loud...

"We could have all been killed in our bunks!" And everyone shook their heads in agreement. The idea that someone could and would come aboard a rig of very capable men seemed absurd. What kind of men would have the guts to do that! It was mentioned more than once that they must have been armed. As no one is allowed a weapon on an American rig, we would have been at their mercy, and we all looked at each other as that thought sank in...

Days later we were resupplied and uncontaminated, and the casing job was up and running again. They left the rig in laughter, shaking their heads as they jumped aboard the relief boat. Soon after the tool pusher announced a meeting in his office over a crackling loud speaker. The cementer was sitting on his sofa, and I came in followed by the company man and the new directional driller, who was asked to close the door. No one said anything for a couple of minutes as the company man looked at cement logs to discuss, but the tool pusher suddenly stood up and pointed to his window. Rigid and frozen he pointed, and we all huddled to see into the swamp. Then it hit me. He wasn't pointing outside at all. He was pointing to the spot on the sill where that black and white teddy bear had been sitting for weeks. It was gone.

 

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