Mike Asher, left, and Chelsea Coleman, right, assist in the search for survivors who were aboard the Seacor Power, a lift boat that capsized on April 13 off the Louisiana coast. AP Photo
COCODRIE: The volunteers gather around a map, suntanned fingers tracing over the bayous, lakes and islands where they’ll search. They talk about where they’ve already been and where they’ll go today. They make sure everyone has food and water, and knows the radio channel to use. They gather in prayer and then set off for another day searching for those still missing from the capsized Seacor Power.
“Lord, we got some families that are hurting,” says one of the men as nearly 30 people bow their heads in prayer. “Please give us the ability to find something today.”
On April 19, after a search covering more than 9,200 square miles (23,000 square kilometers) and using planes, helicopters and cutters, the Coast Guard officially ended the search for survivors of the lift boat that flipped over in hurricane-force winds about eight miles (13 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast on April 13. In a statement April 27, the ship’s owner, Houston, Texas-based Seacor Marine, said it was focusing on salvage operations and recovering the ship.
But from a dock in southern Louisiana, volunteers aren’t giving up. They’ve been setting out in planes, boats and hip-high waders in hopes of finding anyone still alive from the lift boat, a platform ship with retractable legs that services offshore oil and gas facilities.
Nineteen people were aboard the Seacor Power when it failed to weather the storm. Six men were rescued. Six bodies have been recovered from the sea or from divers inside the vessel; seven are still missing.
Scott Daspit still holds onto hope that his son Dylan is alive. Speaking to the people heading out to search, he said any survivors would likely be covered in mud to ward off mosquitos. He urged them to concentrate on the few trees that would provide the only shade in the hot, flat landscape.
In a quieter moment, Daspit said he’d taken hope from a volunteer who told a story of how he’d survived for days floating out at sea.
“It gave me a renewed spirit,” Daspit said. “But I have to assume that … if we do find anybody alive, they’re going to be very hurt because nobody’s standing up and waving us down.”
Later, as he began to choke up, he said: “If we can find one soul it’ll be worth it.”
Like other family members, Daspit has been frustrated from the start with the rescue efforts. In the immediate days after the ship capsized, a ship owner took Daspit, who’s worked in the oil industry for decades, near the Seacor Power so he could see for himself what was going on.
The whole country benefits from oil and gas extracted in the Gulf and the tax revenue it generates, Daspit said, but few appreciate how risky the work can be.
“From the roustabout, to the company man, to the engineer on these jobs, everybody puts their lives in danger,” he said.
It could take as long as two years for a National Transportation Safety Board investigation to determine what happened.
The Coast Guard said Friday that suspending a search is often the most difficult decision the organization makes but such operations cannot go on indefinitely because they impact its ability to carry out other jobs. Petty Officer Jonathan Lally said when the Guard suspended the search on April 19, it was already 48 hours longer than survivability models indicated.
“Many factors are considered in the decision to suspend a search, including whether or not we believe those we are searching for could survive given certain physical and environmental factors,” said Lally. “We understand the loss these families feel and our most sincere condolences go out to them.”
The United Cajun Navy, a non-profit that helps out during disasters, has been helping organize the volunteer search effort. Todd Terrell, who heads the organization, said they have found life vests, life rings and items from the interior of the boat such as doors or cabinets and clothes. He knows at some point they will have exhausted all their efforts but, he said, they’re not there yet.
Many of the volunteers have come from the surrounding area, others from farther afield. Mike Asher, a longtime fisherman, drove out from Lake Charles in western Louisiana after a friend who knew someone on the capsized boat asked if he could help. As Asher guided a small watercraft, he recalled how people had come to help his hometown after Hurricane Laura ripped through the city last August.
“People came from all over and helped us. I definitely felt like I should give something back to people,” he said. “It’s searching for a needle in a haystack. But if you don’t look, you don’t find.”
Others have been searching from seaplanes overhead. A team with dogs trained to search for cadavers also arrived. Groups on ATVs have combed beaches as far away as the Texas border.
On Thursday, an air boat, which can travel over marsh or land to access harder to reach areas, combed through the grasses while others rode flat-bottom boats looking for clues. Well-wishers have brought in food and drink, assembled underneath a raised building at the dock. Volunteer Ronnie Adams, who appeared on the History Channel’s “Swamp People,” has posted online updates viewed by thousands of people.
Mark Theriot, a 63-year-old shrimper, said he’s been coming out every day simply because Scott Daspit and the other families need help.
“I really don’t have much confidence that we’re going to find anybody, but the man wants to go and I’m going to go,” Theriot said. “I’m coming for the family, to give them support. They got help. They’re not by themselves.”