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Oklahoma drilling rig explosion deadliest in years

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The bodies of five workers, including one Texan, were recovered Tuesday after an explosion ripped through a drilling rig in Oklahoma, triggering what appears to be the nation’s deadliest oil and gas accident since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The rig is owned by Houston’s Patterson-UTI Energy, a large drilling and hydraulic fracturing company that had worked hard to rehabilitate its image from a decade ago as one of the worst safety offenders in the energy sector. Three of the five people killed were Patterson-UTI employees.

“This is a real tragedy and our hearts go out to the families and friends of the victims,” said Andy Hendricks, Patterson-UTI’s chief executive.

The victims were identified as Josh Ray, 35, of Fort Worth; Cody Risk, 26, Wellington, Colo.; and Matt Smith, 29, McAlester, Okla.; who worked for Patterson-UTI; Parker Waldridge, 60, Crescent, Okla.; and Roger Cunningham, 55, Seminole, Okla., who worked for other contractors. Eleven died in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

Ray, the only Texan killed in the Oklahoma blast, is survived by a wife and young daughter. His wife, Sarah, wrote on social media, “Josh was one of a kind. No words could ever explain what he meant to us. I know he is watching over me now and continuing to keep me safe. We were together for 15 years. Almost half my life. I’m completely devastated and lost.”

Authorities are still seeking a cause of Monday’s explosion at a drilling site near Quinton, Okla., about 100 miles southeast of Tulsa. Fires raged for much of the day Monday, leaving emergency workers local unable to find the bodies until Tuesday afternoon.

More than 20 people were working at the well site when the explosion occurred. Authorities said 16 people escaped the explosion without major injuries. One Patterson-UTI worker was airlifted to a hospital and later released.

The explosion is setback to Patterson-UTI’s efforts to repair what through much of the last decade was one of the worst safety records in the industry. During the 2000s, Patterson-UTI had more fatalities at its worksite than any other U.S. energy company. A particularly scathing 2008 report from a U.S. Senate committee chaired by late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts found that 12 workers died at the company’s Texas drilling sites alone from 2003 through 2007.

The accidents didn’t cease after the report, although they’ve been less frequent, according to records from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. One worker was crushed in November 2010 at a rig site southwest of San Antonio near Cotulla. In August 2011, there was another fatality at a Patterson rig near Carrizo Springs.

In April 2012, a worker in South Texas’ Eagle Ford shale fell 50 feet to his death from a Patterson rig, which federal inspectors later noted had “excess crude oil or oil-based liquids visible on the beams.” Last year, in August, there was a fatal accident at a Patterson-UTI rig site near Rankin in West Texas.Hendricks, who joined Patterson-UTI as CEO in 2012, said the company has worked hard to improve safety, spending about $150 million in the last decade on safety training and equipment upgrades. Every worker has so-called “stop work” authority to halt activity if they believe safety is at risk, he said “Certainly, for me and the leadership we have today, safety is the top priority,” Hendricks said, declining to comment much on the company’s previous safety record. “There have been cases in the past, but I think the record shows – certainly in the last few years – we’ve been one of the safest companies in the industry.”

The Oklahoma well was operated by Red Mountain, a small Oklahoma production company. The rig worked at the well for about 10 days and drilled 13,500 feet underground – roughly 2.5 miles – when the explosion occurred, said Red Mountain CEO Tony Say.

Cody Risk was the youngest victim. He began working for Patterson-UTI as a floorhand only several weeks ago. Many drilling and fracking companies are hiring people new to the industry as onshore oil and gas activity ramps back up, especially in West Texas and Oklahoma, where skilled oilfield workers are in short supply.

Hendricks said that Risk received intensive and thorough “new to the industry” training before he was sent to the drilling site.

Frank Branson, a Dallas personal injury lawyer who has represented victims in the energy sector, wouldn’t comment on Patterson-UTI. But he said that working the oil and gas fields is inherently dangerous, particularly when drilling activity ramps up and workers might move from Walmart to a drilling rig in a short time.

Once local authorities clear the site, Patterson-UTI and Red Mountain, will work with OSHA to thoroughly investigate the accident, Hendricks said. It’s far too early to speculate on the cause of the explosion, Hendricks said.

In general, the oil and gas industry has become much safer and Patterson-UTI has developed a stronger reputation for safety in recent years, said Jim Wicklund, an energy analyst at Credit Suisse in Dallas. While the five deaths are tragic, Wicklund added, he doesn’t expect Patterson-UTI’s business to suffer much as long as it avoids other incidents in the near future.

“The industry loses several rigs every year to fire, accidents and explosions,” Wicklund said. “We usually don’t kill five people, though.”

James Osborne contributed to this report.

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