Joseph stared at the charts on the table before him. Something was bothering him. Something had been bothering him for days now, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
All appeared to be going well. They had arrived at Lake Peigneur a week before and had quickly got their drilling rig up and running. It was designed to be transported across long distances and reassembled with minimal effort. Within two days they had it ready to go, had confirmed their position, and started drilling.
The lake itself made things easier. While it was quite large at about 1,300 acres, it was only 11 feet deep at its lowest point. This meant it was easy to get the rig in place and attached to the lake floor so it wouldn’t move.
That morning the drill had reached 1,200 feet and they’d had no problems. Which is why Joseph couldn’t understand what was bothering him. He was the team leader and therefore responsible for the crew. He knew to trust his instincts, and his instincts said something was wrong.
He was about to take another look at the charts when he heard a grinding noise and the drill came to an abrupt halt. Frowning, he stepped out of the office.
“What’s the problem?” He yelled to the drill operators. Not quite adjusting his voice to the newly descended silence.
A man that appeared to possess more grease and dirt than actual skin, said something to a colleague then walked over to him.
“Nothing we shouldn’t be able to fix. We’ve been going through some rough patches in the last few minutes, probably just got stuck.”
Joseph nodded, “ok Ben, keep me posted. What depth are we at now?”
Ben checked a clipboard. “About 1,300 feet. We’re making good progress.”
“Shouldn’t you say were?” He replied with a nod towards the drill.
Ben knew he was teasing and smiled. “Fine, were, and will be again any-”
“What was that?”
“I don’t know but I don’t like it.” Ben ran back over to his colleague operating the drill. Joseph followed.
“What did you do?” He berated the other man, who Joseph realised was one of the younger drill operators.
“N-nothing,” he stammered. “I hadn’t even started to move the drill or anything.”
“Ben, I really don’t like the sound of that. It sounds like it’s coming from the shaft.”
“It is, but that’s not the worst part. We’re listing.”
Joseph was taken aback and looked around. It was slight, but there was a definite list. It seemed to be sloping toward the drill.
“What shall we do?”
“Honestly, if the list gets any worse there is nothing we can do. The drill housing won’t cope with the angle.”
Brows furrowed in thought, Joseph scanned the deck. The list was definitely getting worse and people were starting to get unsteady on their feet. He knew they should try and fix the problem but there wasn’t much they could do. Something unknown was causing the platform to list. His first duty was to the safety of the crew, so he gave the order.
“We’re out of here. Release the barges and meet back up on shore.”
Ben nodded solemnly then started giving orders himself. By the time they had loaded everyone onto the barges and set off for sure, the rig was listing dramatically and had partially dipped under the water.
Joseph couldn’t help but wonder how far it could go. The lake was only 11 feet deep after all.
Once they were safely on land, the found a nearby hill and watched their sinking rig. Within minutes, the 150 foot rig had disappeared under the water entirely.
Ben looked both shocked and confused, “what could have done that? It’s like it got sucked down a drain.”
“Oh god…” Joseph said in a moment of realisation. His instincts had been right, something had been very wrong. They were drilling in the wrong place, and if water was being sucked down it had to be going somewhere. There was only one explanation.
– – –
1,300 feet underground, Steven Bardley was doing a routine check of the electrical cabling on the upper levels of the mine. Most of these levels were no longer used, the mining now taking place deeper. But he still had to make sure everything was ok.
It was as he reached up to inspect a lightbulb which had blown out that he heard it. First a series of popping sounds. As a miner, most unusual sounds were bad, but he’d never heard popping like that before so he decided to investigate.
Walking further down the tunnel he started to hear another sound. The clank, clank, clank of metal bashing metal. He paused and frowned, unsure what could be making the noise.
He got his answer a few seconds later when several fuel drums came into view, bashing against each other as they were carried along by a foot high wave of water.
Steven ran. He had to warn the miners deeper in the mine else they’d be trapped. He managed to keep ahead of the water, it hadn’t picked up too much speed yet. He made it back to the nearest junction box and ripped it open. As was standard procedure he flashed the mine’s lights three times. That meant one thing, ‘Get out now!’
He didn’t want to trust that everyone had seen the lights however, so he set off to some of the more remote areas of the mine to warn people. The water was rising, and it wouldn’t take too long for the level to flood.
The problem was, he was at the top level. If you wanted to get to the surface you had to take an elevator from there, and it wasn’t exactly fast. As he ran he just prayed the waters didn’t rise too fast and they could get everyone out in time.
– – –
Back up on the surface, Joseph couldn’t believe his eyes. Centred around the spot their rig had been pulled under, a whirlpool was forming. The water circling like it was going down a drain.
“We pulled the plug out the lake,” he breathed.
Ben stood beside him equally slack-jawed, and their whole crew was nearby. Nobody could take their eyes off it.
“We should warn the mine.”
Joseph looked over to the mining complex on the far side of the lake and shook his head. “By the time we get around there on foot it will be far too late, we just have to hope someone managed to warn them early enough to escape. At 1,300 feet we would have punctured one of their upper shafts.”
“But aren’t they working much deeper than that now?”
Joseph nodded. “Either someone notices what’s happening early, or they are all going to drown.”
Both of their faces went white as they stared at the growing whirlpool.
– – –
Steven was doing his best to make sure everyone knew what was going on, but he was getting nowhere on foot. The mine was just too large. It had been running since 1920 and each tunnel was 100 foot wide and 80 foot deep, and they all stretched on for long distances.
He’d grabbed a small jeep that they sometimes used to get around quickly, and was now making much better progress. Finally he approached the furthest depths of the mine, and sure enough, there were a handful of miners who hadn’t noticed the alarm.
The jeep came screeching to a halt and made one of the miners look up.
“Wow Steve, what’s the rush? You know the company will make you pay for that if you break it.” He laughed and smirked.
“They can charge me all they like Jake, it’ll be much worse if it gets flooded with water.”
The mention of water washed the smile off Jake’s face. Several other miners stopped to listen as well. “What do you mean water?”
“The mine’s flooding, it started on one of the top levels. We need to get out now!”
Jake stared at him open-mouthed for a second. “B-but….we’re over a thousand feet below the lake, how can that happen?”
Some of the other miners had already started running or jumping into other vehicles.
“Hell if I know, but let’s figure that out once we’re not trapped underground, yeah?”
Jake nodded seriously. “Agreed, let’s go.”
Jake did so and Steven spun the jeep around. He’d of loved to take more but it was a two person vehicle. Most of the others were getting into bigger jeeps or large trucks they used to haul the salt around though, so he wasn’t too worried. As soon as they were pointed back in the right direction he gunned the engines and shot back towards the lifts.
When they arrived, however, they found a scene of chaos. Getting towards 50 miners were grouped up in a tunnel one intersection over from the lifts. As they pulled to a stop, a man Steven knew as the foreman, Neil, came to talk to them.
“What’s going on?”
“Water, that’s what’s going on. I’m assuming you’re the one that raised the alarm?”
“You have my thanks, but we’re not out of this yet.’
“Why aren’t you at the lifts?”
“The intersection up ahead is flooded. It’s at a slightly lower level than where we are now, and the water is rushing from left to right. One guy tried to get across and nearly got swept downstream.”
“Shit, we’re trapped,” Jake said loudly, drawing a few glances from other miners.
Neil glared at him briefly, “I’m managing to just about keep people under control, but if we don’t do something soon people are going to start to panic. Any ideas?”
Furrowing his brows in thought, Steven considered their options. Walking and swimming were out. They couldn’t dam the water or make a bridge. He briefly looked at the little jeep, but he didn’t think that would last much longer than a person. He almost shook his head before the rumble of one of the large hauler lorries arriving behind him gave him an idea.
“What about that?” He said pointing at the lorry. “Empty the salt out and drive people across, shouldn’t take more than a few trips.
Neil nodded, “perfect, let’s get-”
All of them spun to find the source of the noise, but it had seemed to come from deeper in the mine.
“What was that?” Steven exclaimed.
This time Jake spoke up, “the salt pillars. As the water floods in it’s going to dissolve the salt pillars that are our main support beams. The mine is going to collapse bit by bit.”
“I don’t think Jesus can help us now, let’s get people into that lorry.” He said with a steely determination Steven wished he felt too.
– – –
Ben continued to stare out at the ever-widening whirlpool which had expanded to about a quarter mile in diameter. “How could this happen,” he said quietly.
“I think I know.”
He turned around. Joseph was on the ground nearby, looking over some charts.
“I took these from the office as we were leaving. Something had been bothering me for a while but I just couldn’t figure out what. But it always kept me coming back to these charts.”
Ben came to sit beside him and Joseph pointed out the point at which they were meant to be drilling.
“If we study this like any other chart, this looks like we were drilling in the right place, correct?”
Ben nodded, he wasn’t an expert but he could still read the charts well enough to tell that.
Joseph flipped the paper over. Almost the entire back side was blank, except for some small writing in the top right corner that said, ‘Property of US Drill Co. Map printed in Transverse Mercator projection.”
“I know. I’d been using the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system this whole time. I haven’t seen a map printed using that system in years.”
“Well, that explains why we were drilling in the wrong place. But why would they print this one in a different system?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Different department? New staff? Old map? Could be anything.”
“Still, you weren’t to know.”
“No? It’s on the map. Granted on the back, but still, I’m sure the company will find a way to pin it on me.” Joseph said, more in resignation than frustration. The truth was, as team leader he’d blame himself anyway, especially if anyone got hurt. This just confirmed it for others.
Ben said nothing, he just appeared to be thinking. But before Joseph could ask him what about, a great whooshing noise drew their attention back to the lake.
A geyser, 400 feet high shot out of the whirlpool, sprinkling them with water even from where they were.
“Wow”, Joseph said with wide eyes.
“Must be the pressure, water is getting in faster than the air can get out. We’re likely going to see a few more of those as time goes on.”
Joseph shook his head, “can this get any worse?”
He knew he shouldn’t have said anything as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Beside him, he heard Ben give a short cough. When he looked at him he was pointing off to the side of the lake, towards the Delcambre Canal which led to the Gulf of Mexico. Just when he didn’t think his eyes could get any wider, he saw what was coming down the canal.
“Son of a…”
– – –
-A few minutes earlier-
“Did you check the engines?” said Captain Catherine Whitfield to Dave, the first officer of her barge.
“Yes sir, engineers say there is nothing wrong with them.”
“Then can you explain why our speed continues to drop.”
Dave shook his head, “no captain, it’s almost like we’re being dragged.”
Catherine sighed. “How could we be being dragged? The canal goes from the lake to the sea, the water only flows in one direction.”
“I don’t know what to tell you Captain, that’s the only thing I can think of.”
Catherine frowned. “Fine, well there is one way to test. She pulled a lever on the control panel and the steady whirr of the engines slowed to an idle purr.”
They both stepped outside and watched the barge beneath them as it slowed to a halt. Then, slowly but surely, it started to move backwards.
“What the hell?” Catherine asked quizzically. “Let’s go to the stern and have a look.”
They made their way to the back of the barge and watched as they slowly got dragged back towards the Lake. After waiting a few minutes the Lake came into view, and they saw why they were getting dragged backwards. They saw the giant whirlpool and could do nothing but stare for at least ten seconds before Catherine managed to shake herself out of it.
Not one to panic, and always one to try and make the best of any situation, she ordered Dave to get on the radio to the other barges. “Warn them what is happening, I don’t know how it’s happening but just make them believe it is.”
“What are you going to do?” He replied as they both ran back to the pilots’ cabin.
“I’m going to see just how good our engines are.” As soon as she got back to the controls she rammed the power lever up to full power. The engines roared back into life and they both felt the barge jolt underneath them.
Within moments she had managed to bring the barge to a complete standstill, and for a second or two, she thought they might have been edging forwards. It wasn’t to be though, they were at a stalemate, and she had a bad feeling that it wouldn’t last for long.
“Message from the engine room Captain, they say the engines won’t run this hard for long. They’ll break down.”
She cursed. Her barge, her pride and joy, the Kingfisher, was hardy, but not as young as she used to be. She was a large flatbed barge, currently carrying a cargo of trucks and lorries, all themselves carrying salt from the mine. It was a heavy cargo, which she knew wasn’t helping their situation, but she couldn’t just dump it.
As she considered her options she noticed that the barge had started to inch backwards again even on full power. Sighing she shook her head, the current was getting stronger. It would take time to dump all the cargo, and they had no guarantee it would work either. No, better to focus on getting the crew off safely now rather than after they were in the middle of the lake.
“Tell all crew to abandon ship. I’m going to swing the barge near the shore so everyone can jump off, then cut the engines and let it get pulled.”
“What about the cargo? The company will have our heads.”
“I’d rather take my chances with them than that whirlpool.”
Dave looked unsure for a moment, then nodded. “Aye Captain.” He got on the loudspeaker. “All crew, abandon ship, I repeat, abandon ship. We’re going to pull along the shore then we’ll have to jump for it.”
As Catherine angled them towards the shore and watched people lining up, eager to jump off after having a look at what they were heading for, she couldn’t help but feel sad. She’s had the Kingfisher a long time, it was like family to her. Part of her even wanted to go down with her ship, but she knew that was a stupid idea.
No, the best she could do was pray that it came through this safely. But deep in her heart, she knew she was probably never going to see her again.
– – –
Clinging onto the side of the hauler, Steven watched the water rapidly flowing beneath them. He’d watched as two previous groups had been taken across the rapids to the relative safety of the elevator, and now it was his turn.
It was hard to believe how much the water had risen. It was lucky they had managed to get the last of the miners in the third trip as the water was almost high enough to choke out the engine. Not to mention the force of the water. As the truck had passed the deepest and fastest parts of the torrent, he’d felt it lurch sideways under him, the wheels getting dragged beneath him.
His heart had been in his mouth for a few seconds, but they managed to make it through. Now, as they drove up to the slight incline on the other side of the intersection he could see the elevator ahead of them. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a steel cage with a grid door, like you find in warehouse buildings sometimes. It was built to be tough though, so he wasn’t too worried about it breaking down.
What he was more concerned about was its size and speed. It could only take about 8 people at once, and it seemed agonizingly slow. But that may have been an illusion brought on by the threat of imminent drowning, he couldn’t be sure. There were still around 10 miners milling around the base of the shaft, waiting for in to descend again, and they’d just brought another 20 on the truck.
Looking behind him the water continued to pour deeper into the mine, and it was clearly rising. It was hard to estimate the rate of the rising waters against the speed of the elevator, but it was going to be close.
– – –
Ben tapped Joseph on the shoulder. He visibly jumped.
“Sorry, thought you’d want to know some of the lads went and got the cars. They’ve come to pick us up.”
“Oh, ok thanks. It’s just….so hard to believe.”
“I know, it’s crazy.”
They had been watching as barge after barge got pulled down the canal and into the whirlpool. The first, a flatbed carrying a load of mining trucks, had already been pulled beneath the surface, and more seemed to be heading for the same fate. There had even been a tug boat on the lake. It had briefly managed to use its powerful engines to pull away from the whirlpool, but in the end, all it managed to do was get close enough to the shore for its crew to jump ship, before it too got pulled in.
“Somebody said miners were starting to appear out the mine. Not all of them yet, but more are coming.”
Joseph sighed, “that’s something at least, I hope they all make it out.”
His shoulders were low and Ben couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He’d just done his job, the mistake he made was an easy one, and he had no doubt almost anyone else would also have made it. Still, it didn’t take away from the weight of responsibility he must be feeling, Ben thought.
“Alright Ben, let’s go. Nothing we can do here. Can you grab the charts?”
“Sure.” He walked over to where they had them rolled out, pinned to the ground with various stones. As he began to roll them up he had a thought. Should Joseph really suffer any more for this? He’s already crushed, it seemed unfair for the company to punish him as well for such an easy error.
Only Joseph and himself knew about the mapping error, and if they hadn’t brought the charts from the rig they might not have figured it out at all. Wouldn’t it have been better if Joseph had left them on the rig? Maybe he did.
Checking nobody was watching, he walked down to the edge of the lake, and with only a moment’s hesitation, threw the charts in. He watched as, like everything else, they got pulled into the maelstrom.
“Charts?” He said to himself. “Sorry sir, I think they went down with the rig.”
– – –
The last 6 miners waited with bated breath for the elevator to descend. Steven, Jake and Neil, stood with 3 others. Watching the water rise on one side, and the ropes of the lift move on the other. All their feet were wet.
“Erm, it’s starting to drop into the lift shaft. Is that a problem?” said Jake, an edge of panic to his voice.
Neil shook his head. “No electrics down there, and it’s unlikely to damage the ropes in the short term.”
Jake breathed a sigh of relief.
“No, I’m more worried about how small that shaft is. It’s only about 6 feet deep, the water will fill it in no time.”
All of them waited for what seemed like forever until finally, they saw the elevator come into view above them. At the same time, the water filled up the lift shaft below them and started to climb their legs.
Another minute or so went by before the elevator finally splashed into position and they could open the cage door. By this point, the water was close to their waists and it was getting hard to move around.
Neil counted all six of them twice before he nodded for Steven to close the gate.
It was hard going but he managed to push it into place.
Jake pressed the control panel. Nothing happened.
He pressed it again. Nothing.
Neil came over and tried, with the same results. Jake started to panic.
Steven wasn’t about to die now though and managed to keep his head. The lift won’t move if the door is open, so he checked the door again. Sure enough, while it was in position, it hadn’t locked properly. He gave it a swift kick, as swift as he could manage when the water was just above his waist now. He heard it lock into position.
Neil did, and with a groan, the lift started to rise. As they were lifted above the water and towards safety, they all let out a collective sigh. They had made it.
– – –
Over the next three days, Catherine kept returning to the lake, hoping to see her beloved Kingfisher again. But it wasn’t to be.
The whirlpool completely drained the lake, all 3.5 billion gallons of water. The canal refilled it slowly, pouring in over a now 150 foot waterfall, but it wasn’t until the end of the third day when things started to finally equalise.
And with the equalisation of pressure, 9 of the 11 barges that had been pulled under popped back up. But not her Kingfisher.
She was relieved none of her crew had died. In fact, she had heard that no lives had been lost at all, which seemed a small miracle. Whoever had caused this disaster was going to compensate her crew and buy her a new barge, not just a second hand one, a brand new one. In her heart, she knew though, that no barge would quite feel the same as her Kingfisher.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
This is based on a true story. Apart from the location, all names have been changed. The story has been sensationalised somewhat for storytelling purposes, but this did happen, and I stuck as close to true events as possible.