PORT FOURCHON, La. - Families welcomed survivors of a thunderous blast that rocked an oil platform they were aboard as Coast Guard rescuers combed Gulf of Mexico waters Thursday for signs of 11 missing from the rig that was still in flames.
About 100 workers on the Deepwater Horizon when it blew Tuesday night made it onto a supply boat. When the boat reached shore Thursday morning, those aboard were examined by doctors, then taken by bus to a hotel in suburban New Orleans where several families waited.
Some relatives, including Dana Eugene of Slidell, instead chose to meet their loved ones sooner when they docked in Port Fourchon. She tearfully hugged her brother, Kevin Eugene, who she said was tired and didn't look good.
"He's kind of shook up," Eugene said, adding he described the ordeal as "very scary."
"We just want to get home," she said.
Seventeen people were injured and taken to hospitals, four critically, in what could be one of the nation's deadliest offshore drilling accidents of the past half-century.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard rescuers in two cutters searched overnight for the missing, though no one had been spotted, said Lt. Sue Kerver. The air search was suspended until first light, she said.
The rig, which is owned by Transocean Ltd., was under contract to the oil giant BP and doing exploratory drilling. Company officials would not comment on the survivors reaching shore or their conditions.
Carrol Moss, 33, of Jayess, Miss., was at the hotel, anticipating her husband's arrival.
She said Transocean notified her about the explosion early Wednesday. Nine hours later, the company said 37-year-old crane operator Eugene Moss was safe.
"That was pure freaking hell," Moss said late Wednesday. "To have your kids look at you and say, 'Mama, my daddy may not come home."' The Mosses have four children.
Authorities could not say when the flames might die out on the 400-by-250-foot rig, which is roughly twice the size of a football field, according the Transocean's website. A column of boiling black smoke rose hundreds of feet over the Gulf of Mexico as fireboats shot streams of water at the blaze. Officials said the damage to the environment appeared minimal so far.
Adrian Rose, vice president of Transocean, said the explosion appeared to be a blowout, in which natural gas or oil forces its way up a well pipe and smashes the equipment. But precisely what went wrong was under investigation.
A total of 126 workers were aboard. Seventy-nine were Transocean workers, six were BP employees and 41 were contracted. The Coast Guard said the 17 taken by air or sea to hospitals suffered burns, broken legs and smoke inhalation.
Company officials had not identified the missing workers. The Neshoba County Democrat newspaper in Philadelphia, Miss., reported that the county sheriff's office notified a Sandtown family that a relative was among the missing.
One of the deadliest U.S. offshore drilling accidents was in 1964, when a catamaran-type drilling barge operated by Pan American Petroleum Corp. near Eugene Island, about 80 miles off Louisiana, suffered a blowout and explosion while drilling a well. Twenty-one crew members died. The deadliest offshore drilling explosion was in 1988 about 120 miles off Aberdeen, Scotland, in which 167 men were killed.
Rose said the Deepwater Horizon crew had drilled the well to its final depth, more than 18,000 feet, and was cementing the steel casing at the time of the explosion.
"They did not have a lot of time to evacuate. This would have happened very rapidly," he said.
According to Transocean's website, the rig was built in 2001 in South Korea and is designed to operate in water up to 8,000 feet deep, drill 5 1/2 miles down, and accommodate a crew of 130.
It floats on pontoons and is moored to the sea floor by several large anchors.
Workers typically spend two weeks on the rig at a time, followed by two weeks off. Offshore oil workers typically earn $40,000 to $60,000 a year -- more if they have special skills.
Working on offshore oil rigs is a dangerous job but has become safer in recent years thanks to improved training, safety systems and maintenance, said Joe Hurt, regional vice president for the International Association of Drilling Contractors.
Since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.
Despite the long wait for word her husband was safe, Moss said she's not upset and that the company didn't want to give bad information.
She said her husband has been working in the oil industry most of his life and that even though he tells her it's safe, she can't help but worry.
"I'm a wife and a mother. Of course I worry," she said.