ON THE GULF OF MEXICO – after all, the gusher was capped in July.
This, though, is an important milestone for the still-weary residents of the Gulf Coast: an assurance that not so much as a trickle of oil will ever seep from the well that already has ruined so much since the disaster first started. The tragedy began April 20, when an explosion killed 11 workers, sank a drilling rig and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Crews had already pumped in cement to seal the well from the bottom, and officials said Saturday it had set. Once a pressure and weight test was finished, officials expected to confirm that the well is permanently plugged. That was expected to occur late Saturday, but an announcement may not come until Sunday.
People who rely on the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline for their livelihoods, though, know the disaster is far from over. They are left to rebuild amid the businesses destroyed by once-oil-coated shorelines and fishing grounds that were tainted by crude. Even where the seafood is safe, fishermen struggle to sell it to consumers fearful that it's toxic.
News that the blown-out well would soon be dead brought little comfort to people like Sheryl Lindsay, who owns Orange Beach Weddings, which provides beach ceremonies on Alabama's coast.
She said she lost about $240,000 in business as nervous brides-to-be canceled their weddings all summer long and even into the remainder of the year. So far, she has only received about $29,000 in BP compensation.
"I'm scared that BP is going to pull out and leave us hanging with nothing," Lindsay said.
The Gulf well spewed 206 million gallons of oil until the gusher was first stopped in mid-July with a temporary cap. Mud and cement were later pushed down through the top of the well, allowing the cap to be removed. But officials will not declare it dead until it is killed from the bottom.
In Louisiana's coastal Plaquemines Parish, Guy Laigast was among three deputies setting up New Orleans Saints football garb Saturday along a fence at the sheriff's office training center, preparing for an annual employees' picnic. For him, news that the plug was nearly done meant little.
"They've still got tons of oil out there, so ..." he said, his voice trailing off. "I don't think it's going to solve all the problems. They've got a lot to go."
Librarian Donna Pobrica was working in an otherwise empty building in Belle Chasse serving as a polling place for a local election.
"I know a lot of people who have been waiting for that," she said of the well's plugging. "We've waited a long time."
Pobrica said the spill "really killed the people down the road. Oysters were the main thing down here, and now it's gone."
Many of the area's oyster beds were wiped out when officials flooded the marshes with fresh water, hoping it would help keep oil out of the delicate wetlands. Oysters thrive in salt water.
For Tom Becker, a charter fishing boat captain in Biloxi, Miss., news that the well was nearly dead is too little, too late. His business has tanked, down more than 60 percent with $36,000 in lost revenue, not to mention the business he'll lose in the future.
"The phones just aren't ringing," Becker said. "The damage is done. I'm glad to hear the well is sealed because now we won't have to speculate about it happening again. Now let's worry about the future. How can we recover from this, and what do we have to do to bring people back?"
Even aboard the Development Driller III — the ship that drilled the relief well and allowed crews to pump in the cement for the plug — celebrations were muted.
"It's kind of bittersweet because we lost 11 men out here," said Rich Robson, the offshore installation manager on the DDIII vessel. "There isn't going to be any real celebration. To a lot of people, the water out here is a cemetery."
The Associated Press was the only media outlet with a print reporter and photographer aboard the ship.
Tim Speirs, BP's well site leader aboard the ship, told AP there would be no sirens, no lights flashing, once the declaration came. In fact, most of the crew would be asleep.
The DDIII crew began finishing their work Thursday, when the relief well being drilled intersected BP's blown-out well. The cement — which will permanently plug the blown-out well from the bottom — started flowing Friday. It had hardened by Saturday, leaving only the pressure test.
Until the test was finished, men in red work suits and mud-splattered hardhats were operating heavy hydraulic machines being used to lift the drill pipe back to the deck of the DDIII vessel. Two men sitting in black leather chairs used joysticks to maneuver the massive machines on the deck, which were lifting the equipment that was thousands of feet below.
The relief well was the 41st successful drilling attempt by John Wright, a contractor who led the team drilling the relief well aboard the DDIII vessel. Wright, who has never missed his target, told AP in August that he was looking forward to finishing the well and celebrating with a cigar and a quiet getaway with his wife.
He said Saturday he plans to make good on that promise. He planned to head back to Houston and then leave for a vacation with his wife, probably to California. For him, the difficult work is finished.
"In my mind, it's already over. It's been a long, exhaustive process," he said, citing "the media attention, the government involvement, the stress levels, the pressure levels — not just on me, but on the entire team."
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey in Venice, La., and Brian Skoloff in Ocean Springs, Miss., contributed to this report.