NEW ORLEANS – Choppy seas, strong winds and rain halted Saturday's cleanup of an oil spill around the massive oil drilling rig that exploded and toppled into the ocean off the Louisiana coast.
Eleven workers are still missing from the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank Thursday about 50 miles from Louisiana's coast. They are presumed dead.
The bad weather rolled in Friday, bringing with it strong wind, clouds and rain that interrupted efforts to contain the oil spill. Petty Officer Erik Swanson of the Coast Guard said cleanup would resume once the weather cleared.
The cause of Tuesday's massive blast off the Louisiana coast is unknown. On Friday, Coast Guard officials suspended the three-day search for the missing workers.
An undetermined amount of oil has spilled from the rig, though Swanson said Saturday morning that remotely operated vehicles had not yet detected any leaking oil from the well or rig. However, crews are closely monitoring the rig and well for any more crude that might spill out.
An oil sheen appeared to cover an area about two miles wide and eight miles long Friday afternoon.
BP, which is taking the lead in the cleanup, said it has activated an extensive oil spill response, including the remotely operated vehicles to assess the well and 32 vessels to mop up the spill. The Marine Spill Response Corp., an energy industry cleanup consortium, also brought equipment.
About half a dozen boats were using booms to trap the thin sheen, which extended about seven miles north of the rig site. There was no sign yet of wildlife being affected.
Meanwhile, the search for the missing workers had been called off because officials believe the men never made it off the platform that erupted into a giant fireball. The Coast Guard stopped the search after the families of the missing workers gave their approval.
"I'm a father and husband, and I have done this a few times before. It's never easy. Your heart goes out to these people," said Coast Guard Capt. Peter Troedsson, who talked to the families.
The Coast Guard says it will resume the search if any ships in the area see anything.
The 11 missing workers came from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Neither the Coast Guard nor their employers have released their names, though several of their families have come forward.
Scott Bickford, a lawyer for the family of missing worker Shane Roshto, said Roshto's wife, Natalie, had been staying with other workers' relatives at a hotel in suburban New Orleans but returned home to Liberty, Miss., on Friday morning.
"Natalie has pretty much accepted the fact that her husband is not coming back," Bickford said.
Karl Kleppinger Sr., whose 38-year-old son, Karl, was one of the 11 missing workers, said he doesn't blame the Coast Guard for calling off the search.
"Given the magnitude of the explosion and the fire, I don't see where you would be able to find anything," said Kleppinger, of Zachary, La.
The other 115 crew members made it off the platform; several were hurt but only two remained hospitalized Friday. The most seriously injured worker was expected to be released within about 10 days.
Federal officials had already been working on new rules for offshore drilling before Tuesday's blast.
The U.S. Minerals and Management Service documented more than 1,400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007. It's developing regulations aimed at preventing human error, which it identified as a factor in many of those cases.
The Deepwater Horizon was the site of a 2005 fire found to have been caused by human error. An MMS investigation determined that a crane operator on the rig had become distracted while refueling the crane, allowing diesel fuel to overflow. Records show the fire was quickly contained, but caused $60,000 in damage to the crane.
An MMS review published last year found 41 deaths and 302 injuries out of 1,443 oil-rig accidents from 2001 to 2007. An analysis of the accidents found a lack of communication between the operator and contractors, a lack of written procedures, a failure to enforce existing procedures and other problems.
"It appears that equipment failure is rarely the primary cause of the incident or accident," the report said.
As a result of the findings, the MMS is developing new rules that would require rig operators to develop programs focused on preventing human error, an area that received relatively little attention in the past. The agency, which has yet to implement the new rules and is currently reviewing public comment on the proposal, also suggested audits once every three years on programs to prevent human error.
BP PLC, which leased the Deepwater Horizon, opposes what it says are "extensive prescriptive regulations."