Sergio Rincon kissed his wife goodbye, stowed his sack lunch inside the cab of his Chevy Avalanche and then returned to the house for one long last embrace before setting off for the oil fields on April 14, 2009.
Rincon, fit from his daily workouts at 51, hoisted his sweetheart atop a low step in the living room to even out a 4-inch height difference and clasped her tightly against his coveralls.
"Te amo," he said. "Remember, you are the love of my life."
Then Rincon left for a Nabors drilling rig near his home in Pharr and never returned, falling victim to one of the state's most deadly occupations.
Oil and gas field services and drilling workers were killed on the job in Texas more than those in any other profession, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of five years of fatal accidents investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Overall, workplace deaths have declined in Texas - but not in the oil patch where 197 perished on the job, an average of 39 per year, worker fatality statistics from 2007-2011 show. OSHA investigated at least 84 cases; dozens more died in job-related traffic accidents OSHA does not probe.
The number of deaths might seem small with an estimated 110,000 to 140,000 drill and well supply workers employed at the state's booming oil and gas fields. Nationally, those fatalities are combined with mining in the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Texas' death rates for mining/oil and gas - dominated by the state's oil patch fatalities - repeatedly topped those for agricultural, construction and other major industries, though some subcategories with far fewer workers, like roofing and logging, have higher reported fatality rates.
The death toll already has prompted an unusual response.
OSHA in January called for a voluntary "stand down" for all oil and gas employers in fields all across Texas and four other states - temporary work stoppages meant to draw attention to potentially life-threatening risks. So far, 88 companies have signed up to participate in events through Feb. 28.
"The industry standard is always zero injuries and zero fatalities. Even one is too many," said Lisa London, executive director of the Division for Enterprise Development at the University of Texas at Arlington, a group that has pushed to bring workers and employers together to address rising reports of accidents tied to exploration booms.
No oil patch employer had more recent OSHA-reported deaths in Texas than Nabors Drilling USA LLC and its sister company Nabors Well Services, both subsidiaries of a Bermuda-based corporation with headquarters in Houston. The companies reported five deaths statewide, and two more in North Dakota and Wyoming from 2007 to 2011.
Only three employers had three or more fatal accidents in the Lone Star State: Nabors had five; Unit Texas Drilling LLC, a division of an Oklahoma-based drilling company, had four and Express Energy Services, a Houston well supply business, had four since 2007, based on the newspaper's analysis of OSHA reports and information from the companies.
OSHA found violations at all five Nabors' fatal accident sites, and the company was initially assessed $104,375 - a small fraction of the reported $16 million annual compensation of the company's CEO, one of Houston's highest paid executives.
'Committed to safety'
Nabors contested the fines, which were later cut in half.
In a statement, company spokesman Dennis A. Smith said "Nabors is unequivocally committed to the safety of our employees world-wide. ... We take every incident personally, because these are terribly tragic events affecting our employees' families, friends and all of us, their co-workers."
Smith said Nabors has generally reported lower fatal accident and injury rates compared to other U.S. drilling companies based on statistics he provided from the International Association of Drilling Contractors for 2007-2012.
Nabors operates in 24 countries and is among the top five drillers in Texas with an average of 85 rigs working last year that employed about 1,983 people, Smith said. In 2012, Nabors spent nearly $100 million on safety, training and related equipment worldwide.
"In summary, not one fatality or serious injury to any of our employees is acceptable to us and our commitment to safety starts with our CEO and permeates throughout our organization," he said.
Unit Texas Drilling LLC, part of the Oklahoma-based Unit Corp., was initially assessed $32,625 for violations found in three of four fatalities, records show. A smaller regional driller, Unit Texas has employed from 414 to 534 workers statewide at 17 to 27 different rigs from 2009-2012, according to the company. Unit Texas and Unit Corp. had six more deaths reported to OSHA in other states.
"The occurrence of even one (death) over any length of time is an unacceptable record to us," Michael Earl, a spokesman for Unit Corp. said in response to emailed questions from the Houston Chronicle. "Our employees are our most valuable asset and our goal is to make sure that at the end of the day, each one is able to return home to their families."
Most oil and gas workers' deaths occurred in remote rural areas, received little or no publicity and drew miniscule fines.
One Unit Texas employee, for instance, Henry Garza, 45, fell to his death on May 21, 2007, at a rig near tiny Stewards Mill, a ghost town and state historic site with a population of only 22. Unit was fined $1,625.
In all, Houston-based Express Energy has been assessed $5,650 by OSHA for violations in two of three fatal accidents. (A fourth in 2012 remains under review.)
It paid $2,500 after Robert L. Jost Jr., was killed by flying debris in a blowout at a natural gas well on April 22, 2009, near Franklin, records show. His widow later filed a lawsuit seeking $1.2 million, according to bankruptcy court records, and the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed sum.
Two other Express Energy employees died after getting caught in or were struck by drilling equipment.
Express Energy, which has 1,203 of its 1,898 employees in Texas, also has invested heavily in safety improvements since 2011 - spending $20 million reworking its Health Safety and Environment Division and opening "Express University," a training school for all new employees, said spokeswoman Wendy Hall.
OSHA officials have stepped up proactive inspections at oil and well drill sites across Texas and in other states. Last year, they completed 244 inspections in Texas - three times as many as in 2009. That's still a fraction of drill sites: 22,479 permits were issued last year alone.
Two of Nabors' rigs were targeted for proactive inspections in November 2011. After inspectors found violations at sites in Beaumont and in Liberty County, officials proposed penalties of $152,100, but Nabors has gone to court to contest them, said OSHA regional spokesperson Elizabeth Todd.
Victim planned to quit
Nabors' largest fine in any Texas fatality came in the case of Sergio Rincon.
Rincon, a seasoned rigger who also had worked as a cook, had returned for one more year of rig work to pay off tuition bills he'd accumulated by sending his daughter to law school and paying for his son's final year in college at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
He'd planned to quit to devote time to his first grandchild.
Instead he was struck in the head in 2009 when a metal attachment fell from a forklift operated by a co-worker at Rig number 776. The attachment had been incorrectly installed and the driver of the recently acquired forklift confused its control levers, abruptly tipping the basket and sending the heavy metal piece flying off toward Rincon, records show.
OSHA inspectors initially found six serious violations and proposed a $36,275 penalty, which was later reduced.
A jury awarded $8.9 million to Rincon's family.
His daughter, Criselda Rincon-Flores, a Hidalgo County assistant district attorney, was still on maternity leave when her father was killed. Her baby, whom he got to meet due only to a premature birth, is now 4.
"I see my mom lonely - she still lives in the same home in the same neighborhood. And she's not happy," said Rincon-Flores, who drives her dad's Chevy Avalanche to work every day. "We would give it all back if only we could have my dad back."
Oil patch fatalities were reported statewide in many booming areas, including in the Permian Basin near Midland, the Barnett Shale play in the Fort Worth Basin and Eagle Ford Shale play in Southeast Texas as well as in East Texas. From 2007-2011, Midland County and adjacent Ector County in the Permian Basin each had six reported deaths.
"Generally what we're witnessing in the industry, particularly in South Texas with the Eagle Ford Shale, is that they cannot staff these wells quick enough and they are putting people in positions that they are ill-trained and ill-prepared to handle," said John Escamilla, Rincon's family's attorney.
Government safety inspectors found many oil field victims were fatally injured by flying metal or got caught in equipment, including rotary drilling machines. Others were electrocuted, fell or inhaled poisonous gases.
Ralph Hudspeth, 56, a Nabors Well Supply employee, for example, was fatally struck when metal pipes shifted and fell from a forklift at a High Island well in 2011. Filiberto Salazar Jr., a married 27-year-old father of two, died after getting pinned while washing the bottom of a rig in 2008 in the Eagle Ford Shale region.
Two other Nabors employees, Joshua Smith, a 28-year-old father and former volunteer firefighter from Mississippi, and floorhand Victor Aviles, a 28-year-old Mexican immigrant, were electrocuted at East Texas drill sites in 2007 and 2010.
Aviles had worked in his latest assignment as a floorhand only five weeks when he climbed into the upper section of a rig derrick near Clayton to repair a lighting fixture, according to an OSHA report. He was electrocuted on Aug. 20, 2007. Safety inspectors found that he and another worker received inadequate training and were exposed to damaged electrical cords.
His widow won a wrongful death settlement that cost Nabors $1.1 million in payments and attorneys' fees, court records show.
Smith had been working for Nabors for two years - commuting hundreds of miles from his Mississippi hometown, where he had a wife and two children, to remote Texas sites every week or two, said LaDale Williams, Smith's longtime firefighting buddy.
Smith had recently been promoted to "motorman" when he was electrocuted near Henderson on Oct. 26, 2010. His lifeless body was recovered near a water well's electric pump control box - its electrical circuits had been improperly grounded, records show.
Soon after, Nabors offered Smith's best friend a job.
"I didn't take it," Williams said. "It didn't feel right."
By the numbers
197 Number of oil patch deaths reported in Texas from 2007-11
39 Average number of oil patch deaths reported in Texas each year from 2007-11
3 Number of Texas employers that had three or more deaths from 2007-11
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