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Monday September 22nd 2014

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Missing Papa Bear

Daughters honor father lost in Deepwater Horizon explosion
By Rick Outzen

Their father, Blair Manuel, wasn’t supposed to be on the Deepwater Horizon rig when it exploded the night of April 20, 2010. A year later, his three daughters, Kelli Manuel Taquino, 36, Jessica Manuel Manchester, 31, and Ashley Manuel, 29, still search for closure.

On the anniversary of the explosion, a family friend has arranged for the daughters to fly by helicopter over the well site. For them, it isn’t a time to point fingers or talk about lawsuits. They want to honor and remember the man who took them whitewater rafting, sang Doobie Brothers songs with them in the car and treated them to dinner whenever he came home to Lafayette, La. after working offshore.

“I miss his phone calls, his laugh and just hanging out with him,” said Kelli Taquino.

The father of Kelli, Jessica and Ashley was known on the rigs as “Papa Bear.” Manuel was engaged to marry Melinda Becnel of St. Amant, La. last summer. It was Becnel’s grandson who gave him the nickname “Bear” because he had trouble saying “Blair.” His co-workers turned it into “Papa Bear.”

Manuel, 56, worked for M-I Swaco, a Houston-based supplier of drilling fluid systems, as a “mud engineer,” a nickname for the drilling fluids engineer who is responsible for ensuring the properties of the drilling fluid, also known as drilling mud, are within designed specifications. He was one of the 11 men killed in the explosion on the floating oil drilling platform 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

April 20, 2010 was to be a momentous day for BP and the 126 riggers, contractors and support personnel on the rig. Manuel and others were busy setting the cement seal at the well head, which was 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. Once the seal was set the Deepwater Horizon floating rig would move on. The exploratory well would become a full production well.

What haunts his family is that Manuel wasn’t supposed to be on the rig that day. He was due to be off the weekend before the accident, but something happened with his replacement and he agreed to stay until April 20.

The day of the explosion the mud engineer was set to leave at 5 p.m. but had to stay a little longer because of problems with the well tests. The well passed positive pressure tests, but there is evidence that it may not have passed crucial
negative pressure tests. Significant pressure discrepancies were observed in at least two of these tests, which were conducted just hours before the explosion.

By 7 p.m. Blair had completed his work and was waiting for final clearance for him to leave. He talked on the phone with Kelli for about forty minutes, asking her to help him pass the time. Blair had tickets to the LSU Tigers weekend baseball series against Ole Miss.

Less than three hours later, a methane gas bubble erupted from the well head, rocketed up the drill pipe’s sheath and exploded on the deck of Deepwater Horizon. Blair was one of the 11 men that went missing.

For two days, the girls waited for news. They placed their hopes on a missing lifeboat capsule. There were conflicting news reports about whether it was found. News from officials in Plaquemines Parish indicated that the missing capsule had been sighted and that the 11 workers were “safe and sound,” but that was later denied by the Coast Guard.

The thing that made the girls’ hearts sink was the thing that made it all so devastating. Papa Bear was a good father.

“Dad would have called,” thought the girls. He would have known how anxious they all were. He would have called. But Manuel never did. By Friday, April 23, the Coast Guard announced it was calling off the search. All 11 men were pronounced dead.

In the weeks and months that followed, Kelli and her sisters avoided the news. “Every time she turned on the TV or read the newspaper that was what it was all about, so we all  shied away from the TV or newspaper for awhile,” said Kelli. She hated how the capping of the well drug out for so long and felt that her father and the other 10 men were forgotten once the oil hit the beaches. They are still forgotten today.

“Everything comes back, but them,” she told The Daily Beast.

There have been two bright spots for the Manuel family in the past year. In June 2010, the girls met President Obama at the White House along with nine other families of the 11 victims. Seated in the Red Room and the State Dining Room, the president went from table to table, meeting with each individual family.

“He expressed his sorrow,” said Kelli, “and told us ‘If there is anything I can ever do for you, my secretary has your name and number, you have ours, give us a call and we will take care of it.’”

The other highlight was this spring when LSU Coach Paul Mainieri met privately with Kelli and her husband Kyle before the home opener and presented them with a bat engraved with her father’s name.

Does Kelli think the helicopter ride to the well site will help give her and her sisters some closure? “We’re working towards that door, we might not ever get there, but who knows?” she said.

“I’ve learned from this tragedy to never take any time, day or person for granted. The only thing in life that you can bet on happening in life is the sun going up and the sun going down. Don’t sweat the small stuff, the laundry can wait.”

rick@inweekly.net