Text by Laurence Gonzales
Occasionally, I Iike to visit some place where the objective hazards appear so great that I can remind myself what paying attention really means. The way we behave in environments full of risk is pretty different from how we act in the safety of our world at home. For example, I once went out to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and found what looked like the most hazardous environment I’d ever seen.
I traveled by boat from Galveston, Texas, leaving in the middle of the night and arriving at the base of the rig in the morning for the change of crew. A crane lowered something to us that looked like an oversize orange life ring, with rope webbed above it like a tent. I stood on the ring with several crew members, grabbed the rope, and was pulled 20 stories into the air and set down in the midst of the whirling, roaring machinery. The ride up there scared me half to death, but the business end of the oil rig was even worse.
The deck was strewn with sharp objects, welding tanks, hoses, and drums, and we were surrounded by churning gears and grinding machinery. The crew worked seven days of 12-hour shifts and then had seven days off. The rig ran 24 hours a day. As the men circled around me, someone mentioned that oh, by the way, there’s no medic on board, so don’t get hurt. It’s a long wait for the helicopter. “You got any gloves, or what?” another asked. It was a warm autumn day in Texas, and I had no gloves.
I made my way down to the rig floor, where the drilling was done. It was a cantilevered platform, and I stood between the legs of the derrick to watch as three roughnecks worked the pipe that extends the drill bit down past 13 fathoms (78 feet) of water to where it chews through the seafloor. This rig had struck a pocket of natural gas, and the crew was now pulling up the sections of pipe that formed the shaft of the drilling mechanism. A 35,000-pound yellow steel block and tackle (called the elevator jaws) was lifting lengths of pipe out of a hole in the platform floor. The roughnecks danced around it, three ordinary young men who might have been mistaken for fraternity brothers if they hadn’t been covered with oil and mud, and if their big eyes hadn’t made them look like ponies trapped in a fire.
They worked at a rapid pace, the way football players run scrimmage—only the roughnecks were playing against steel and without pads. Everything was moving in different directions at once: The platform swayed back and forth with the wind and the force of the waves against the rig. The elevator jaws, which the winchman raised and lowered, were always turning, swinging, and making lengthy excursions up and down the cables. When the roughnecks clamped a section of pipe in the jaws, it was whisked high into the air. The derrickman, teetering on a platform ten stories above us, had to lasso the pipe with a piece of rope and steady it. The men put steel shims around the rest of it so that it wouldn’t slip down the hole into the sea.
Each time the elevator jaws pulled, a section of pipe about 90 feet tall was set free. It came alive, wriggling wildly in the air. It was the derrickman’s job to wrestle on high with this piece of undulating steel, and all.
He had to work with was a greasy piece of hemp rope. As he hauled on his rope, the pipe struggled and whipped away, and I watched as he leaned way out over the edge of his little perch. For a moment I thought that the metal whip made by the pipe was going to flick him into the shark-infested sea. But the derrickman was at one with the kinetic energy of the pipe. He wasn’t fighting the pipe. He was gentling it over, over, the way a fisherman plays the fighting billfish with a piece of string. And when the propitious moment came, he reeled in his rope and the pipe was landed and clamped securely off to one side in its rack.
A fellow named Dave came to watch with me. He had advanced up the ladder from roughneck to rig mechanic. I noticed that he was missing a finger on his right hand, and I asked how he’d lost it. He laughed softly to himself and cut his eyes in the direction of the elevator jaws. “Doing something just about like that there,” he said. Occasionally the mammoth shafts of metal came clanging together in an unhappy way to remind us that feet and fingers, arms and legs and skulls were always in play, as if these men cast dice, betting with their living bones.
And those are just the hazards to the individual who loses his focus. The rig is vulnerable as well. A pocket of gas could cause the well to blow out and set the whole thing on fire. I was told that if that happened, we’d have four minutes to get off before the steel began to melt.
Everyone on the rig was either paying attention in an almost superhuman way or heading for a very bad accident. I learned this as I was taking notes. Several men were standing nearby and I noticed them watching me, as if I were some sort of curiosity in their otherwise routine day. There was a subtle flick of their eyes as they watched, and I felt the hair stand up on my neck—what were they looking at? I turned around just in time to see a craneload of pipe moving slowly but implacably toward my head. I stepped aside as the four-ton rack whooshed past and was set on the floor.
I looked back at the men. They weren’t laughing, but one of them glanced at me in a peculiar way, with a little smile. I understood at that moment how truly different their ways of paying attention were. Nothing escaped their vigilance—a shift in the wind, a chance remark, the tinkling of machinery, a sudden odor from somewhere—because all of those things could signal the beginning of the end, and the man who noticed what was going on first was most likely to survive.
As I left the rig on a helicopter, I wondered if it was as dangerous as the monstrous machinery and tales of grisly accidents made it appear. Amazingly, the statistics seem to show that our supposedly safe world is actually more dangerous than an oil rig. In the years between 2003 and 2005, oil and gas workers were killed at a rate of 30 per 100,000. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national average rate for accidental death among the general population is 39.6 per 100,000, making accidents the top cause of death among people under the age of 45. Not surprisingly, driving is to blame for the bulk of these accidents.
When the hazards we face are obvious, paying attention becomes a cultural norm. Everything on that oil rig was an obvious test, a clear threat, and therefore each man was working hard every moment for his own survival. Those who didn’t paid the price. For the rest of us, the hazards are still there. They’re just hidden. And that can sometimes be more dangerous than the most seemingly hazardous environment.