NEW ORLEANS — A deepwater oil platform that burned for more than a day after a massive explosion sank into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, creating the potential for a major spill as it underscored the slim chances that the 11 workers still missing survived.
The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, which burned violently until the gulf itself extinguished the fire, could unleash more than 300,000 of gallons of crude a day into the water. The environmental hazards would be greatest if the spill were to reach the Louisiana coast, some 50 miles away.
Crews searched by air and water for the missing workers, hoping they had managed to reach a lifeboat, but one relative said family members have been told it's unlikely any of the missing survived Tuesday night's blast. The Coast Guard found two lifeboats, but no one was inside. More than 100 workers escaped the explosion and fire; four were critically injured.
Carolyn Kemp of Monterey, La., said her grandson, Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, was among the missing. She said he would have been on the drilling platform when it exploded.
"They're assuming all those men who were on the platform are dead," Kemp said. "That's the last we've heard."
The well could be spilling up to 336,000 gallons of crude oil a day, Coast Guard Petty Officer Katherine McNamara said. She said she didn't know whether the crude oil was spilling into the gulf. The rig also carried 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel, but that would likely evaporate if the fire didn't consume it.
The oil will do much less damage at sea than it would if it hits the shore, said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.
"If it gets landward, it could be a disaster in the making," Sarthou said.
The well will need to be capped off underwater. Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler said crews were prepared for the platform to sink and had the equipment at the site to limit the environmental damage.
Crews searching for the missing workers, meanwhile, have covered the 1,940-square-mile search area by air 12 times and by boat five times. The boats searched all night.