ABOARD THE DEVELOPMENT DRILLER II — The men who spend weeks at a time aboard these deepwater rigs are accustomed to drilling in relative solitude out in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
But that's not how it is these days: Smoke billows and bursts of orange flames unfurl on the horizon, byproducts of the surface fight to stop the runaway Deepwater Horizon well, which is spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil each day into the gulf.
Here, the Development Driller II and another drilling rig, the DD III, about half a mile away, are the last hope for plugging the gushing underwater well. Both rigs are drilling relief wells that, deep under the ocean bottom, will try to tap into the pipe gushing oil, pour cement into it and, hopefully, stop the oil permanently.
"Whichever one gets there first," said Wendell Guidry, the drilling superintendent on the DD II. Officials have said the wells would take about two to three months to complete and have said they hope to plug the gusher in August.
Mickey Fruge, the rig's well site leader and senior BP representative on the rig, said the well is ahead of schedule and could be completed sometime in mid July, barring storms or mechanical difficulties.
The men think about the importance of the task "all the time, always on our mind," said Guidry, who has worked on rigs for 27 years. The task ahead is the "same as any other well," he said. "That's our main focus, just to get the well done, to get the flow to stop."
He added: "I guess there's some self-imposed pressure on the guys, wanting to get it done. Some of the guys here worked with some of the guys on the Deepwater Horizon. When we got on the scene we told the guys we'll treat this like any other job, do the job we know how to do."
On Saturday, a handful of journalists were flown from a helipad in Houma, La., to the DD II rig, about 40 miles offshore. It was the first media tour of one of the drilling rigs, ground zero in the fight to stem the disaster.
The hour-long helicopter flight traversed the bayous, where water threaded through bright green blobs of land and below white puffy clouds. Large boats stood docked. Light skinny arms of oil sheen formed in ridges and fanned outward, orange crests the shape of mountain tops on the surface.
On the approach to the Deepwater Horizon site, rings of ships fan out. At the site of the sunken rig, the Discoverer Enterprise and the Q4000, ships taking on the oil coming up the pipe, work to contain the spill.
Orange flames shoot from both. On the Q4000, the crew is burning hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. The burn produces a bursting flame, kept in check by workboats dousing it with water. The ship burned 10,000 barrels of oil in the past 24 hours, officials said.
The DD II was working about 127 nautical miles away, at BP's Atlantis site, when it got orders to head for the area of the sunken rig. The work on this drilling rig started on May 16, and will ultimately tunnel 13,000 feet below the surface to intercept the runaway well. As of Saturday, the DDII has drilled 5,000 feet below the sea floor.
The other drilling rig, the DD III, started days earlier and has already tunneled down about 10,900 feet below the sea floor. The process means drilling sections, dropping in steel casing and then sealing the section with cement, essentially unfurling sections smaller in diameter until they reach the well bore.
"We've drilled the hole to the depth we want, 10,000 feet, and ran steel casing into the ground," Fruge said Saturday from a rig conference room. It's the same room where the rig holds daily teleconferences with drilling experts in Houston.
On Saturday, the work turned to pushing about 2,200 feet of 18-inch steel casing down into the already drilled hole. The casing will nest inside a larger casing already in place.
"We're going to intersect the reservoir and pump heavy mud," Fruge said of the ultimate goal.
The rig floor sits 84 feet above the sea surface and from there it's about another 5,000 feet to the sea floor.
After the 18-inch lengths of casing, there will be four segments of different sizes bored into the rock well below the surface.
Each step of the way, they work to take measurements.
"We pulled out of the hole last night, as we drill we stick a drill pipe down, take measurements," Fruge said. "The rock doctors, as I call them, tell us where we need to be."
On the rig floor Saturday morning, a handful of men prepared one of the tools that would push the casing into position. One man rotated a lubricated steel-gray piece as others wrapped absorbent pads and taped them into place with duct tape. The machinery was laid on its side on the floor, ready to be used to push the casing well below the sea floor.
"After we lower the casing, we'll circulate the mud and then put in the cement," Fruge said. "When the cement is in place we'll wait 24 hours."
While the drilling is under way, they also plan for contingencies, like hurricanes.
It takes about 130 hours to secure the well and move out from the rig before a hurricane. The roughly 170 people on board the rig work in 12-hour shifts. The operations continue round the clock.
"It's business as usual," said Eric Jackson, who works on the rig floor. "Everyone tells us it's the same as any other day. We drill wells."
Asked why he was out there on the rig, Jackson said: "The money. It goes to our family. Most of us are from Texas and Louisiana. The economy is bad. A lot of these guys have a high school education. Not a lot of places you can make this kind of money."
An orange workboat sat on the side of the drilling rig, piles of 16-inch casing on board. The materials will be moved to the rig to build the next string of casing. On Monday night, the drilling will start again.
Final destination: a 7-inch pipe, 13,000 feet below the sea floor.