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[box type=”default” size=”large”] Cusia lauds panel for its thorough, impartial probe [/box]CHICAGO — One worker in an oil rig platform asked two other workers “if they smelled gas like odor” but they received no response because there was no gas detector to validate the smell. Seconds later, a welder then started to make the first tack weld, which ignited flammable vapors, causing a fireball and explosion that killed three Filipino workers and seriously injured three others nearly one year ago in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

This was one of the findings of a panel formed by U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to investigate the Nov. 16, 2012 explosion. The panel laid squarely the blame for the death of Filipino workers Ellroy Corporal, Avelino Tajonera and Jerome Malagapo on Black Elk Energy and its contractors.

Aside from Black Elk Energy, the erring contractors include Compass Engineering Consultants, L.L.C. (Compass), Grand Isle Shipyard (GIS), DNR Offshore and Crewing Services, Inc. (DNR), Wood Group Production Services Network (WGPSN), Shamrock and Enviro-Tech Systems.

In a 58-page report posted online, BSEE Director Brian M. Salerno said Black Elk Energy failed to establish an effective culture of safety and communicate risks and precautions to its contractors who were, in turn, blamed for failing to follow proper safety precautions.

The oil platform located at the West Delta (WD), Block 32, Gulf of Mexico, nine statute miles off the Louisiana Coast is a complex that sits above 63 feet of water. But it lacked life-saving devices that could have been thrown on one of the Filipino workers who was seen waving for help below and was later found at the bottom of the sea.

Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose L. Cuisia, Jr., upon learning about the report, said, “We are greatly relieved to learn from the official BSEE investigation report that the Filipino workers were not responsible for the tragedy, contrary to earlier assertions made by Black Elk Energy President John Hoffman who had wrongfully attributed the accident to our workers.”

In his answer to the lawsuit filed by the Estate of Ellroy A. Corporal for wrongful death suit before the U.S. District Court of Eastern Louisiana in New Orleans, Hoffman denied the charges against Black Elk Energy, saying the death of Corporal and two others and the serious injury to three others “were caused by their own fault and/or neglect as employed by Grand Isle Shipyard (GIS) and/or DNR which is pled in bar and/or in diminution of any recovery herein.”

The family of another fatality, Jerome Malagapo, has also filed a separate wrongful death suit against Black Elk Energy.

Ambassador Cuisia said, “It had always been our position that our workers could not have been responsible for the accident and that they were actually the victims of a terrible accident that could easily have been prevented.” He added the BSEE findings were consistent with statements given to the Embassy by the surviving workers.

The BSEE report stated the explosion was triggered by the welding work the Filipino workers were ordered to perform on a pipeline co`lieve were empty storage tanks that apparently still contained dangerous vapors. The BSEE also cited other safety lapses by the contractors among the causes or contributing causes to the accident.

In response to a query from the Embassy, the BSEE said the supposed language gaps and lack of skills, training or experience of the Filipino workers were not identified as among the causes of the explosion and fire.

“The Filipino workers who were on board the ill-fated platform all had extensive experience in offshore oil platforms in the Philippines, the Middle East, Europe and other parts of the world,” Ambassador Cuisia said. “And like majority of Filipinos, they all speak and understand English.”

Cuisia commended the BSEE for conducting an impartial and thorough investigation into the incident that claimed the lives of Ellroy Corporal, Jerome Malagapo and Avelino Tajonera and seriously injured Antonio Tamayo, Reynaldo Dominguez and Wilberto Ilagan.

In a statement, Director Salermo said the death and serious injuries of the workers on the Black Elk facility serve as a reminder of the grave consequences that can arise from offshore operations.

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Joseph is a former reporter of the Manila Bulletin, former president of the Rizal-Metro Manila Reporters Association and former president of the Chicago chapter of the National Press Club of the Philippines. A prolific reporter, Lariosa writes a column and news stories for the Filipino Star News and other Filipino community newspapers in the US as well as for GMA News and the Manila Bulletin.


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