An oil platform exploded and burned off the Louisiana coast in the second such disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in less than five months.
This time, the US Coast Guard said there was no leak and no one was killed.
The coastguard initially reported yesterday that an oil sheen a mile long had begun to spread from the site of the blast, about 200 miles west of the source of BP’s massive spill.
But hours later, Cmdr Cheri Ben-Iesau said crews were unable to find any spill.
The company that owns the platform, Houston, Texas-based Mariner Energy, did not know what caused the explosion.
Mariner officials said there were seven active production wells on the platform and they were shut down shortly before the fire broke out.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said the company told him the fire began in 100 barrels of light oil condensate, but officials did not know yet what sparked the flames.
The coastguard said Mariner Energy initially reported the oil sheen. In a public statement, the company said an initial flyover did not show any oil.
Photos from the scene showed at least five ships floating near the platform. Three of them were shooting great plumes of water onto the machinery. Light smoke could be seen drifting across the deep blue waters of the gulf.
By late afternoon, the fire on the platform was out.
The platform is in about 340 feet of water and about 100 miles south of Louisiana’s Vermilion Bay. Its location is considered shallow water, much less than the approximately 5,000 feet where BP’s well spewed oil and gas for three months after the April rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
Responding to any oil spill in shallow water would be much easier than in deep water, where crews depend on remote-operated vehicles to access equipment on the sea floor.
A US Homeland Security update said the platform was producing 58,800 gallons of oil and 900,000 cubic feet of gas per day. The platform can store 4,200 gallons of oil.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration had “response assets ready for deployment should we receive reports of pollution in the water”.
All 13 of the platform’s crew members were rescued from the water. They were found huddled together in insulated survival outfits called Gumby suits, after their resemblance to the cartoon character.
“These guys had the presence of mind, used their training to get into those Gumby suits before they entered the water,” coastguard spokesman Chief Petty Officer John Edwards said.
The captain of the boat that rescued the platform crew said his vessel was 25 miles away when it received a distress call from the platform.
The Crystal Clear, a 110ft boat, was in the Gulf doing routine maintenance work on oil rigs and platforms. When Captain Dan Shaw arrived at the scene of the blast, the workers were holding hands in the water, where they had been for two hours, thirsty and tired.
Environmental groups and some politicians said the incident showed the dangers of offshore drilling, and urged the Obama administration to extend a temporary ban on deepwater drilling to shallow water, where this platform was located.
“How many accidents are needed and how much environmental and economic damage must we suffer before we act to contain and control the source of the danger: offshore drilling?” said Rep Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat.
Mike Gravitz, oceans advocate for Environment America, said Barack Obama “should need no further wake-up call to permanently ban new drilling”.
There are about 3,400 platforms operating in the Gulf, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Together they pump about a third of the America’s domestic oil, forming the backbone of the country’s petroleum industry.
Meanwhile BP began the process of removing the cap and failed blowout preventer from its ruptured well, another step towards completion of a relief well that would seal the leak permanently.
The Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, setting off a three-month leak that totalled 206 million gallons of oil.