Apparent negligence and a ferocious hurricane spell mortal trouble for hundreds of men on an oil barge in this feverish tale of rescue from Krieger (Conversations with Cannibals, not reviewed).
In 1995, 60 miles off the coast of the Yucatán, a barge was laying oil pipeline. The craft, a colossal structure 400 feet long by 100 feet wide, carried 245 men and was maneuvered by a pair of ocean-going tugs. The manager of the vessel decided to ride out a hurricane at sea. Krieger delicately suggests that this decision may have been motivated by penalties imposed for running over schedule and may not have been the wisest choice, considering that the barge was not exactly shipshape, being both rusty and leaky. But responsibility is not Krieger’s main concern here; rather, he is intent on delivering a rousing story, directing the narrative like an old-fashioned melodrama: You know the hurricane is going to be trouble, just like the damsel tied to the tracks knows her goose is cooked when she hears the locomotive’s whistle. The first encounter with the storm batters the barge and tugs, though not critically. Then the hurricane turns on its heels to pound them again. This time the 40-foot seas sink the barge and all the men go into the drink. Keeping the story just this side of breathless, Krieger describes what it was like to be in the rough sea, waves crashing on the barge workers, and how preposterously valiant were the efforts of the tugs—one more soon arrived on the scene—to find the men and pull them aboard in the middle of the night and the middle of a hurricane, the boats pitching like toys, the nine-foot propellers slicing the air with each crest. Incredibly, only eight men died. Litigation regarding the culpability of the barge’s owner continues to this day.
Tugboats aren’t renowned for their balletic qualities, but Krieger finds in them a beautiful, intrepid choreography.