Video: Hunkering down

By Scott Cohn Correspondent
updated 6/21/2006 12:01:38 PM ET 2006-06-21T16:01:38

It's a quiet day at the office for Ferrell Martin, whose office is a hundred miles and an hour by chopper from the nearest dry land. This is Petronius – producing 60,000 barrels of oil a day, owned by Chevron. At 2001 feet tall, 1,750 feet of it underwater, it’s the largest freestanding structure in the world.

The Gulf coast is on edge as another hurricane season begins. But they’re even more on edge off the coast, where the energy industry enters this season still crippled, and workers are bracing themselves for the next big storm.

The Gulf of Mexico goes into this Hurricane season with 20 percent of the oil and natural gas production still out of commission. Some of it may never come back, making platforms like Petronius all the more important, and workers like Ferrell Martin, vital.

“We’ve got to take care of it. We’ve got to make sure it won’t fail,” said Martin.

It’s a tough life out here. Martin, a mechanic, spends two weeks on the platform, and then gets two weeks off. The quarters are close, the hours long and the work hard. The only way out, unless there’s a chopper waiting, are escape pods.

“You can’t just get off this thing and run away if something does happen,” says Martin.

The food his hearty (fried pork chops for lunch today) and nowadays, there’s a television, phones and even email to view the latest pictures of the grandkids. A far cry from when Ferrell Martin started offshore 33 years ago, when the biggest entertainment was listening to the other workers’ radio calls home. But sometimes the drama is way more intense.

Ivan's wrath
Take for example, Hurricane Ivan in 2004. By the time it hit land, it was relatively tame, but in the Gulf, it was a category five and was taking dead aim at Petronius. Martin was one of the last workers evacuated before Ivan hit, and among the first to make it back.

“I kept saying, ‘It can’t be, it can’t be’,” said Martin.

The giant helipad flipped over, crushing the crew quarters. A massive crane toppled, and below the deck, the scars remain. There were four-foot structural beams, bent and bowed by the crush of the waves. It took six months to get Petronius back online, but even now, they are still recovering.

They’ve always practiced for disaster, but two ferocious hurricane seasons in a row have changed things. Their homes on the Gulf Coast and their home away from home out here are both in peril. Petronius was evacuated seven times last season and already partially evacuated once this year ahead of tropical storm Alberto. For Ferrell Martin who helped build Petronius seven years ago, each evacuation is stressful.

“When you get on that chopper, and it leaves and it circles that platform, you look through the windows on that chopper, wondering if she will still be standing when you come back”, said Martin.

But, Ferrell Martin will keep coming back. This life, he says, gets in your blood,

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