HOUSTON » When waves as high as 40 feet disabled the 94-foot research vessel Jeremy Parfait and nine other oil workers were on in the Gulf of Mexico last month, he knew there was only one place they could go into the water.
Their boat, which normally would be elevated above the water by several metal legs, had toppled in the tropical storm and was floating helplessly, beaten by waves and wind. The 10 men jumped into the Gulf and clung to a 6-foot-by-3-foot raft.
"We know we don’t want to go in that water. I can see it in their eyes. They are scared to death. They don’t want to go in that water. I don’t want to go in that water," said Parfait, the boat’s captain.
Parfait, 39, and Ted Derise Jr., 32, told The Associated Press on Friday that the ordeal was a nightmare in which they saw friends and co-workers slowly die. The workers abandoned their vessel Sept. 8 about eight miles off shore from Frontera in the southeastern Mexican state of Tabasco. It was nearly four days before they were rescued. Three died in the water, and a fourth died later at a hospital.
As the men floated, Mexico’s state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, and the Mexican navy mounted a nearly 10,000-square-mile search by air and sea. Most were found just before noon Sept. 11 about 50 miles off the coast of the Mexican state of Campeche.
Derise and Parfait, who are from Louisiana, said they were pushed to the breaking point but never lost hope they would be rescued.
"When we hit the water, I kept telling them, ‘They are going to come find us,’" Parfait said.
Along with Derise and Parfait, four Mexican oil workers and a Bangladeshi were rescued alive. Craig Myers, 32, and, Nicholas Reed, 31, both from Louisiana, were found dead. The Bangladeshi man, Nadimuzzman Khan, later died of exposure in a Mexican hospital. The body of another worker, Aaron Houweling of Australia, who had floated away earlier, was found three days later.
Parfait said that when he realized they would have to abandon their vessel, a liftboat called the Trinity II, he wasn’t worried because a standby ship about three miles away could come and get the workers. But he said that ship and another one that was also nearby never came.
Parfait, Derise and the family of Myers have filed a federal lawsuit in Houston against the companies involved in the operation, claiming they were abandoned. The companies being sued, including Geokinetics Inc., a Houston-based company that provides seismic data to the oil and gas industry; Trinity Liftboat Services, a Louisiana-based company that operated the liftboat and that Parfait and Derise work for, did not return telephone calls seeking comment Friday night.
In addition to Derise, Parfait, Myers, Khan, Reed and Houweling, the other workers were: Ruben Martinez Velasquez; Eleaquin Lopez; Luis Escobar; and Ruben Lopez Villalobos, four Mexican contract workers.
During the first and second nights in the Gulf, the men battled rain, massive waves and fatigue. Some began to fall asleep, losing their grip on ropes tied to the life raft.
Houweling drifted off on Sept. 9. By the time the others realized what had happened, he was too far away.
"It was pitch black. We couldn’t see him. We swam after him for 2Ω hours straight trying to get to him," Parfait said. "Everybody wanted to try and go and save him. I told them, ‘Just stop. Take a break. We’ll look at him at daylight.’ Everybody was just dead tired."
By daybreak on Sept. 10, there was no sign of him.
That day, the men, their tongues swollen and lips left raw by saltwater, decided to drink their own urine.
"We were just so thirsty," Derise said.
Myers had become disoriented. Later that evening, Derise was in the raft with Myers when he realized his friend had died.
Both Derise and Parfait cried as they recounted how they held their friend’s body and decided to tie it to the raft so he wouldn’t be left out to sea.
Early the morning of Sept. 11, the men spotted lights in the distance and realized it was a platform that was several miles away. Derise, Parfait, Reed and another worker tried to swim to it. Unable to reach it or get back to the raft, they floated together in the Gulf.
Around 7:30 a.m., they spotted a boat off in the distance. With Parfait and Reed disoriented, Derise and the other man headed toward the ship.
Derise said he swam for seven hours but couldn’t get the ship’s attention.
As he saw it leaving, he thought, "This is it. I’m going to die." But then he heard a noise, looked up and saw an airplane, which signaled it had seen him. The boat turned around and picked him up.
By that time, the men who had stayed with the raft had already been rescued.
Derise and Parfait said they are still dealing with psychological and medical issues from their ordeal.
"My wife wakes me up and I’m screaming. No matter what the dream is, I’m trying to get to them. The outcome is still the same. I can’t change nothing," Parfait said.