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Day of Remembrance: 1 Year After Gulf Oil Disaster

Gulf Oil Spill Vigil on Beach.jpg

April 20: People gather in prayer at dawn during a prayer vigil for those who suffered following the Deepwater Horizon incident in Orange Beach, Ala.AP

NEW ORLEANS -- Relatives of the 11 men who died aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig are flying over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, back to the epicenter of the worst offshore oil spill in the nation's history.

Meanwhile, on land, vigils were scheduled in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to mark the spill.

On the night of April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a rig operated by Transocean Ltd., burst into flames as it was drilling a well for BP PLC., killing 11 workers on or near the drilling floor. The rest of the crew evacuated, but two days later the rig toppled into the Gulf and sank to the sea floor. The bodies were never recovered.

Over the next 85 days, 206 million gallons of oil -- 19 times more than the Exxon Valdez spilled -- spewed from the well. In response, the nation commandeered the largest offshore fleet of vessels since D-Day, and BP spent billions of dollars to clean up the mess, saving itself from collapse.

"I can't believe tomorrow has been one year because it seems like everything just happened," Courtney Kemp, whose husband Roy Wyatt Kemp was killed on the rig, wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday. "I have learned a lot of things through all of this but the most important is to live each day as if it were your last ... what matters is if you truly live."

Transocean invited up to three members of each family to attend the flyover. They are expected to ciom a $20 billion fund set up by BP, they said.

Still, it's not all so bleak.

Traffic jams on the narrow coastal roads of Alabama, crowded seafood restaurants in Florida and families vacationing along the Louisiana coast attest to the fact that familiar routines are returning, albeit slowly.

"We used to fuss about that," said Ike Williams, referring to the heavy traffic headed for the water in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where he rents chairs and umbrellas to beachgoers. "But it was such a welcome sight."

Many questions still linger: Will the fishing industry recover? Will the environment bounce back completely? Will an oil-hungry public ever accept more deepwater drilling?

"It seems like it is all gone," said Tyler Priest, an oil historian at the University of Houston. "People have turned their attention elsewhere. But it will play out like Exxon Valdez did. There will be 20 years of litigation."

Most scientists agree the effects "were not as severe as many had predicted," said Christopher D'Elia, dean at the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. "People had said this was an ecological Armageddon, and that did not come to pass."

Biologists are concerned about the spill's long-term effect on marine life.

"There are these cascading effects," D'Elia said. "It could be accumulation of toxins in the food chain, or changes in the food web. Some species might dominate."

Meanwhile, accumulated oil is believed to lie on the bottom of the Gulf, and it still shows up as a thick, gooey black crust along miles of Louisiana's marshy shoreliand distant memory," said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian. But the accident will have long-lasting influence on environmental history, he said.

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