Early in the morning on November 21, 1980, a dozen Texaco-hired workers abandoned their oil-drilling rig hastily in the middle of a lake. They had been probing the floor of Lake Peigneur in Louisiana when their drill suddenly seized up at about 1,230 feet below the murky surface. When they attempted to work the big drill loose, normally a fairly easy task at such shallow depths. The men heard a series of loud pops, and the rig tilted precariously toward the water.
In those days, Lake Peigneur was an unremarkable body of water near New Iberia, Louisiana. Though the freshwater lake covered 1,300 acres of land, it was only 11 feet deep. Its small Jefferson Island boasted a beautiful botanical park, and a few oil wells dotted the landscape. The area was also home to the Diamond Crystal salt mine, with miles of tunnels honeycombing the natural salt dome beneath the lake.
When the $5-million drill rig began to buck and protest, the crew concluded that something had gone terribly wrong. They released the attached barges, scrambled off the rig, and moved to the shore about 300 yards away. Shortly after, the team watched in disbelief as the huge platform and derrick rolled over slowly and disappeared into a lake that was supposed to be shallow. Within moments the surrounding water began to rotate around the spot where the derrick had disappeared. The movement was almost imperceptible at first, but accelerated gradually into a fast-moving whirlpool with its center directly over the drill site. As the men looked on, dumbfounded, the whirlpool grew to a quarter of a mile in diameter.
Down in the Diamond Crystal salt mine, an electrician named Junius Gaddison heard a series of loud clanging sounds from a nearby corridor. When he investigated, he discovered a knee-deep rush of muddy water dragging fuel drums down the mine shaft. He called in the alarm and headed for the nearest exit.
In the depths of the mine, the morning shift was interrupted when all the lights flashed three times, the signal to drop everything and evacuate immediately. The 50 or so miners, most of them working more than 1,500 feet underground, were quick to comply, hurrying to the higher levels to reach the elevators. When they got to the third level, however, the route to the lifts was blocked by the rising waters.
From the surface, the cause of the unfolding disaster was unmistakable. Although the drillers had been aware of the Diamond Crystal salt mine, due to some miscalculation they had bored straight into one of the cavernous 80-foot-high, 50-foot-wide upper shafts. As the lake drained into the mine through the 14-inch-wide borehole, the water dissolved the salt rapidly, widening the hole by the second. The water also began to eat away at the huge salt pillars that supported the mine’s high ceilings. As the bases of the columns dissolved, many of them buckled. The upper shafts of the mine began to collapse.
As most of the miners rushed for the exit, a maintenance foreman named Randy LaSalle drove around to the remote areas of the mine that hadn’t seen the evacuation signal and warned the miners there to evacuate. On level three, where high waters had blocked the escape route, the desperate miners used mine carts and diesel-powered vehicles to push their way through the water. Once the 50 miners reached the 1,300 foot level, eight men crammed into the elevator and began the excruciatingly slow journey to the surface. the lift car then crawled back down the shaft to pick up another load of workers as the mine below filled slowly with water.
Meanwhile, up on the surface, the whirlpool’s tremendous sucking power was causing violent destruction. Another drilling platform on the lake was swallowed whole and a loading dock was ripped to pieces. Seventy acres of Jefferson Island was slurped into the vortex, including trees, structures, and a parking lot. The suction was so strong that it reversed the flow of a 12-mile-long canal that led out to he Gulf of Mexico, dragging 11 barges from the canal into the lake and down into the flooded mines. A tugboat on the canal fought against the current at full power, but its puny engines were no match for the maelstrom. After a prolonged struggle, the sailors brought their boat along the canal bank and made a jump for it, then watched as the whirlpool consumed their vessel.
After three hours, the lake was drained of its 3.5 billion gallons of water. The canal continued to draw salt water in from the gulf of Mexico, forming a 150-foot waterfall into the muddy crater where the shallow lake had been. As the lake bed filled with ocean water, large pockets of trapped air escaped from the mine through the original drain hole, causing tremendous 400-foot geysers. Over the next couple of days, as the lake level reached the original waterline, nine of the sunken barges propped back to the surface like corks. The drilling rigs and tugboat were never seen again, forever entombed in the ruined salt mine.
Despite the enormous destruction of property, no human life was lost in the Lake Peigneur disaster, nor were there any serious injuries. Within two days, what had previously been an 11-foot-deep freshwater body was replaced with a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake. The lake’s ecology was changed drastically, and it became home to many species of plants and fish that had not been there previously.
Numerous lawsuits were filed, of course, they were subsequently settled out-of-court for many millions of dollars. The owners of the Diamond Crystal salt mine received a combined $45 million in damages from Texaco and their oil-drilling contractors, and they got out of the salt-mining business for good. No official blame for the miscalculation was ever assigned, unfortunately, because all of the physical evidence was sucked down the drain.