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Hero on the water: Local man helps with oil rig rescue

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

CONYERS -- Covington resident Jon Fritz said the heat from the oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico was unbelievable even as he and his crew aboard a transport boat searched the surrounding waters for survivors.

Fritz, a Merchant Marine and captain of the BP supply ship Fast Cagin, was one of the first responders at the scene 50 miles offshore where the rig, called Deepwater Horizon, was on fire after an explosion occurred on April 20. The oil rig collapsed two days later.

"We had just pulled into the dock after a supply run, and they told us there was a fire and they would unload us and send us back out there to look for survivors," Fritz said, whose boat docks at Port Fourchon, La.

The Fast Cagin was among the first six rescue boats that arrived. For the next 72 hours, Fritz and his five-man crew performed grid searches near the burning rig and outward for about 3.5 miles.

"I knew it was going to be hot, but I didn't realize how hot the fire would be," he said. "It was just an intense heat."

In all, 100 oil workers were pulled from the water. Fritz and his crew rescued five men.

"The first thing they all said when we got them on board was to ask if they could use our satellite phone," Fritz said.

The rescue operation was called off by the U.S. Coast Guard three days after the fire began. Eleven oil workers remain missing, according to media reports.

The oil rig explosion has resulted in a massive oil leak that federal and state officials are struggling to contain. The spewing oil -- about 210,000 gallons a day -- comes from a well drilled in the floor of the ocean. BP was operating the rig that was owned by Transocean Ltd. The Coast Guard is working with BP to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water's surface.

The spill could eclipse the worst oil spill in U.S. history -- the 11 million gallons that leaked from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 -- in the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the gushing well 5,000 feet underwater on the sea floor.

Fritz has worked in the Gulf for five years and captains what the company refers to as a "fast boat," boats that are smaller than regular supply transport ships that serve the oil rigs. Fritz said his boat and other fast boats are used to transport items on short notice, like spare parts for machinery or rig supervisors.

He said the fast boats were used for the first responder rescue efforts because of their ability to move across large areas of water quickly. Fritz said he and the other captains on the initial rescue performed a grid search. They were able to determine the amount of drift in the area, about a half a knot. Factoring in the time of the explosion, they determined anyone in the open water would have drifted north by northeast about 4.5 miles away from the oil rig.

A computer program also aided in the search in setting the grid "that showed you where they (survivors) were supposed to be."

Fritz said there was a lot of debris in the water and searchers had to keep a close eye out for anything that would indicate someone in the water.

Before operating a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, Fritz covered the streets of Conyers as owner of the Conyers Cab Company. He sold the company for the opportunity to be a captain for BP, but still lives in Newton County. His wife, Christina, is a teacher at Ficquett Elementary School in Covington.

Officers change out from the ships on a 28-day rotation, then Fritz comes home for two weeks before returning to the job.

"I stay busy, but I miss Rockdale County because I grew up here," he said. "It's our choice to stay in the area."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.