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Coast Guard: Body found near burned Gulf oil rig

NEW ORLEANS — Divers hired by the owner of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico that caught fire recovered a body in the waters near the site Saturday evening, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and the rig's owner.

Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega said late Saturday that the remains of the unidentified person were found by divers hired by Houston-based Black Elk Energy, who were inspecting the platform. Vega said the Coast Guard would be turning over the remains to local authorities.

John Hoffman, the president and CEO of Black Elk Energy, wrote in an email late Saturday that the body is apparently that of one of two crew members missing since an explosion and fire on the oil platform Friday morning. Hoffman said the body was found by a contract dive vessel at 5:25 p.m. CST.

"Divers will continue to search for the second missing worker," Hoffman wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families."

Hoffman said the body was found close to the leg of the platform, near where the explosion occurred, in about 30 feet of water. He said the missing men were employees of oilfield contractor Grand Isle Shipyard.

"We have notified next of kin of all individuals involved, but in respect for their families and their privacy, we will not be releasing their names," GIS CEO Mark Pregeant said in a statement, according to WWL-TV in New Orleans.

The news came shortly after the Coast Guard suspended a 32-hour-long search for the two missing workers that covered 1,400 square miles (3626 sq. kilometers) near the oil platform, located about 20 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Grand Isle, La.

"We have saturated the search area several times — the 1400-square-foot area," Vega said. "We saw no signs of life. We have suspended the search... pending further development. If we receive any credible information that there are signs of life, we can resume the search at any time."

Four other workers who were severely burned remained at Baton Rouge General Medical Center on Saturday night.

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash said the Guard's search was ended early Saturday evening. Helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft had been searching by air, while cutters and boat crews searched the sea.

The blaze erupted Friday morning while workers were using a torch to cut an oil line on the platform, authorities said.

Pregeant stressed in his statement that the cause of the fire and explosion is unknown, and said "initial reports that a welding torch was being used at the time of the incident or that an incorrect line was cut are completely inaccurate."

Four workers were severely burned, though Black Elk Energy spokeswoman Leslie Hoffman said their burns were not as extensive as initially feared.

Officials at Baton Rouge General Medical Center said Saturday that two men remained in critical condition, while two men remained in serious condition. The four, being treated in a burn unit, are also employees of Grand Isle Shipyard and are from the Philippines. The hospital said it and Grand Isle Shipyard are trying to reach the men's families in the Philippines.

Grand Isle Shipyard employed 14 of the 22 workers on the platform at the time of the incident, WWL-TV reported. A man who answered the phone at the company's Galliano, La., office on Saturday said no one was available to comment.

Meanwhile, officials said no oil was leaking from the charred platform, a relief for Gulf Coast residents still weary two years after the BP oil spill illustrated the risk that offshore drilling poses to the region's ecosystem and economy.

Friday's fire sent an ominous black plume of smoke into the air reminiscent of the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that transformed the oil industry and life along the U.S. Gulf Coast

James A. Watson, the director of Louisiana's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said in a statement Saturday that his agency had begun "an investigation into the explosion and fire aboard a Black Elk Energy production platform offshore Louisiana."

"BSEE is committed to determining the direct and indirect causes of the explosion and will take appropriate enforcement action," he said.

The Deepwater Horizon blaze killed 11 workers and led to an oil spill that took months to bring under control. Friday's fire came a day after BP PLC agreed to plead guilty to a raft of charges in the 2010 spill and pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties.

There were a few important differences between this latest blaze and the one that touched off the worst offshore spill in U.S. history: Friday's fire was put out within hours, while the Deepwater Horizon burned for more than a day, collapsed and sank.

The Black Elk Energy facility is a production platform in shallow water, rather than an exploratory drilling rig like the Deepwater Horizon looking for new oil on the seafloor almost a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep.

The depth of the 2010 well blow-out proved to be a major challenge in bringing the disaster under control.

The Black Elk Energy platform is in 56 feet (17 meters) of water — a depth much easier for engineers to manage if a spill had happened.

A sheen of oil about a half-mile (800 meters) long and 200 yards (180 meters) wide was reported on the Gulf surface, but officials believe it came from residual oil on the platform.

"It's not going to be an uncontrolled discharge from everything we're getting right now," Coast Guard Capt. Ed Cubanski said.

Leslie Hoffman, the Black Elk Energy spokeswoman, said Saturday that there were still no signs of any leak or spill at the platform site.

BP's blown-out well spewed millions of gallons (liters) of oil into the sea, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River on the east side of the river delta. The crude fouled beaches, marshes and rich seafood grounds.

After Friday's blaze, 11 people were taken by helicopter to area hospitals or for treatment on shore by emergency medical workers.

The production platform is on the western side of the Mississippi River delta.

"This platform was not in operation and had been shut in since mid-August," Black Elk officials said in a news release Saturday.

Cubanski said the platform appeared to be structurally sound. He said only about 28 gallons (106 liters) of oil were in the broken line on the platform.

David Smith, a spokesman for the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in Washington, said an environmental enforcement team was dispatched from a Gulf Coast base by helicopter soon after the Coast Guard was notified of the emergency. Smith said the team would scan for any evidence of oil spilling and investigate the cause of the explosion.

Black Elk Energy is an independent oil and gas company. The company's website says it holds interests in properties in Texas and Louisiana waters, including 854 wells on 155 platforms.

___

Associated Press writers Kevin McGill in New Orleans and Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss., and Norman Gomlak and Greg Schreier in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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