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November 15th, 2016

Florida Radio Host Interviews Attorney Matthew Shaffer; Reflects on Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Radio talk show host -Rick Outzen-  is known in Pensacola for his extensive coverage of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the victims and families who were affected by it, including SMSH client- Blair Manuel. After catching sight of  Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., Accident & Injury Lawyers news release on the Deepwater Horizon movie and the remembrance of client Blair Manuel and his family, it was only natural for Rick to reach out to Attorney Matthew Shaffer for an update on the Manuel’s settlement and his viewpoint of how the movie captured the events of the disaster. Click here for the full radio interview and article.

Remembering Deepwater Horizon

By Rick Outzen

Last month, the movie “Deepwater Horizon” hit the Pensacola movie theaters. The film, starring Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell, depicted the day in April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon exploded 50 miles offshore of Louisiana, killing 11 men, and spewing over 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico until it was capped three months later. It focused on the courage of those who worked on the Deepwater Horizon and their bravery and courage in the hours after the explosion.

Our newspaper covered the aftermath of one of the world’s largest man-made disasters. In the weeks after the tragedy, we traveled to Eunice, La. to interview the family and friends of Blair Manuel, who died in the explosion.

Manuel, 56, worked for M-I Swaco, a Houston-based supplier of drilling fluid systems, as a “mud engineer,” a nickname for the drilling fluids engineer who is responsible for ensuring the properties of the drilling fluid, also known as drilling mud, are within designed specifications.

Known on the rigs as “Papa Bear,” Manuel had a huge smile and such warmth that he reminded everyone who knew him of Santa Claus. He loved his LSU Tigers and had both football and baseball season tickets.

April 20, 2010, was to be a momentous day for BP and the 126 riggers, contractors, and support personnel on the rig. Manuel and others were busy setting the cement seal at the wellhead, which was 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. Once the seal was set the Deepwater Horizon floating rig would move on. The exploratory well would become a full production well.

What haunted his family was that Manuel wasn’t supposed to be on the rig that day. He was due to be off the weekend before the accident. When something happened with his replacement, he agreed to stay through April 20.

The day of the explosion, the mud engineer was set to leave at 5 p.m. but had to stay a little longer because of problems with the negative pressure tests. Significant pressure discrepancies were observed in at least two of these tests, which were conducted just hours before the explosion.

By 7 p.m. Manuel had completed his work and was waiting for final clearance for his departure. He talked on the phone with one of his daughters for about 40 minutes, asking her to help him pass the time.

Less than three hours later, a methane gas bubble erupted from the wellhead, rocketed up the drill pipe’s sheath and exploded on the deck of the Deepwater Horizon.

For two days, his adult daughters, Kelli Manuel Taquino, Jessica Manuel Manchester, and Ashley Manuel, waited for news. They placed their hopes on a missing lifeboat capsule. There were conflicting news reports about whether it was found. News from officials in Plaquemines Parish indicated that the missing capsule had been sighted and that the 11 workers were “safe and sound,” but that was later denied by the Coast Guard.

The thing that made the girls’ hearts sink was the thing that made it all so devastating. Papa Bear was a good father.

“Dad would have called,” thought the girls. He would have known how anxious they all were. He would have called.

But Manuel never did. By Friday, April 23, the Coast Guard announced it was calling off the search. All 11 men were pronounced dead.

Manuel grew up in Eunice, La., a happy little town of fewer than 13,000 people set in the heart of the Cajun plains between Lafayette and Lake Charles. Our guide to Eunice was Lynne Halter, mother of Pensacola attorney Ryan Hatler.

On Saturday mornings, locals crowd Eunice Superette & Slaughterhouse for fresh boudin. Pensacola has Joe Patti’s Seafood where locals and tourists line up for fresh seafood. Eunice has the Slaughterhouse.

In the center of Eunice is a statue dedicated to the town’s namesake. Eunice was the wife of the first mayor, and she stands proudly in a Victorian dress and hat like a Cajun Mary Poppins.

On Saturday nights, the locals head to the Liberty Theatre for the best Cajun and Zydeco musicians in Louisiana. Nearby a Cajun music souvenir shop sells CDs and LSU regalia. Behind the counter, the owner’s wife keeps a sewing machine and spends her spare time making Mardi Gras costumes for everyone in town.

The town paper, The Eunice News, printed the photos of all 138 graduates of Eunice High School class of 2010, and they had a huge party at the Knights of Columbus Hall to celebrate. Many of the two dozen people in line at the Slaughterhouse were buying hot boudin, Cajun sausage made from a pork rice dressing stuffed into pork casings, to take the edge off the hangover from the party.

With its familiar routines and sometimes quirky characters, Eunice could be any small town in America. The thing that makes Eunice different is the rigs.

Everybody in town has some connection to the rigs. And most of those connections, you realize very quickly, are connections weighted by love. Everybody has a father, a husband, a brother, a boyfriend, a cousin or a best friend going out to the rigs, and hopefully, after a long six or eight weeks, coming back.

The women are used to it. But after a couple of weeks, they miss them and start anticipating their men coming home. And they do worry. Accidents happen perhaps more than most people safely on shore know.

Most Americans never give the offshore rigs a second thought. But the wives and the parents and the girlfriends live with it every day. They don’t complain. The money is too good—workers with no college degrees can make over $100,000 a year. Nowhere else could these men earn these wages or have so much free time. It is a give and take. So they don’t complain or dwell on it.

When Deepwater Horizon exploded, the men on the other rigs knew about it before the news crews were out in helicopters taping the flames, before the explosion hit the headlines. They heard a floater was burning in the Gulf just off of Venice. The men immediately called home to make sure their loved ones knew they were safe.

Wives and girlfriends and mothers jammed the lines, calling, breathless, praying, “not my son, not my husband.” The Manuel women did not receive a call.

On May 7, 2010, the people of Eunice gathered at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, known as the “big church,” to lay to rest one of their own. Family, friends, and co-workers came to praise Manuel. He stood for the four F’s: family, faith, friends, and fun.

Papa Bear did not have a coffin. There was nothing left of him to bury. The girls made a memory box to bury in the family plot at the feet of his grandparents. A bench was placed at the gravesite, so his daughters could go and have long talks with Papa Bear.

Last week, Inweekly interviewed attorney Matt Schechter of  Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., Accident & Injury Lawyers in Houston, Texas about the movie. Shaffer represented the Manuel family and three workers who were injured in the explosion.

“We at the firm had heard the stories of our clients and what they went through, and I do believe that the movie was very accurate in the depiction of the horror these guys went through,” said Shaffer.

“One of the things that stands out in my mind was how several of my clients were in their quarters at the time and that the doors blew in on them, without warning, of course. That is certainly shown in the movie how the living quarters were a living hell in such a burnout.”

The attorney talked about how the movie’s trailer impacted one of his clients.

“One of my clients was at the movie theater, not at ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ but was just sitting in another movie and saw the trailer, and had a violent reaction to just even witnessing the trailer,” he said. “He did not want to see the movie. He saw the trailer and had a breakdown. This is, of course, six years after the event and after having therapy. It just doesn’t go away for him.”

Shaffer praised the movie for taking a very complicated set of facts regarding the explosion and presenting to the general public about what happened and some of the factors that went into the series of events that caused this catastrophe.

The movie depicted accurately the dangers involved for those working in offshore on exploratory rigs, according to Shaffer. Safety is paramount to those on the rigs.

“They know that this is one of the most deadly occupations in the United States,” he told Inweekly. “Working on any vessel is extremely dangerous. You’re working on a dynamic platform that’s subject to the environment and the climate and sudden changes in the climate and the environment.”

He continued, “Then when you add onto that danger a drilling rig that’s sitting on top of millions of barrels of explosive hydrocarbon, your head really has to be on a swivel. You have to be looking out for not only your safety but the safety of everybody else on the rig at all times.”

Shaffer said that Eunice was typical of the small towns where most offshore workers live. They are often multiple generations of a family working on a rig.

Having represented men and women who work on these rigs for 30 years, he said, “Many of them come from small towns. Pensacola would be a huge town for a lot of them. A lot of them come from small towns like Eunice, Louisiana, little places in Mississippi and Alabama along the coast.”

He added, “It’s not uncommon to see generations of a family working on a rig at the same time, cousins, brothers, dads and their sons or daughters. Not only do they become a family out there from the close proximity where they work and the long hours and the weeks at a time they’re away from their family, but many of them really are family.”

Shaffer settled the Manuals’ case against BP a year and a half after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“We settled in the winter of 2011; then we settled the rest of our clients in the next six to seven months after that,” he said. “I do know from working with some lawyers that are on the steering committee that really most of the litigation has been wrapped up.”

The “Deepwater Horizon” movie has gotten mostly positive reviews. The website Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 83-percent “Certified Fresh” rating. The box office for the film, which cost $156 million to produce, hasn’t been stellar, earning $93 million through last weekend.

Regardless, it’s important movie because the film helps remember the lives lost in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.


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