Family, friend of man killed in oil rig explosion plea for drilling to continue

Carlene Peterson

They buried memories because they couldn’t bury their son.

Geneva Manuel and her husband, L.D., agonize over the environment shattered by cascades of oil. They grieve for the wildlife left dead or dying.

But they ache over the nightmarish death of their son. Keith Blair Manuel died after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20, sending a torrent of toxins into the sea.

“Our son is still at the bottom of that burning well,” Geneva said.

The Eunice, La., couple has not come to terms with their son’s death.

“There was anger; there was shock and disbelief,” Geneva said. “We have not gotten to acceptance yet. We’re still working on that.”

A lag in mourning

For families with loved ones working on a rig, long absences are a part of life. Blair, as his family and friends called him, could be gone for a week, two weeks or a month at time.

But he hasn’t come home this time — a macabre fact just settling in for some.

Before going out for the last time, Geneva said Blair made a call to his fiancee, Melinda Becnel, of St. Amant, La.

“Melinda, he called her at 7:30 that morning and told her they were having a problem with the rig but that they were solving the problem,” Geneva said. “He didn’t worry about it.”

Mark DeRouen Sr., a long-time friend of Blair’s, said the biased coverage of the spill is bad enough. What’s worse is how the media tends to tiptoe over the death of 11 oil rig workers, DeRouen said.

“They’re always careful to mention, at the bottom of the article, the date of the accident, and the 11 deaths that happened because of this event,” he said. “So you can’t say they forgot it. But glossed over it? Most assuredly.”

Understanding the tragedy

Blair cared intensely for the environment and was dedicated to protecting the wildlife threatened throughout the Gulf.

An explosion of epic proportions, continuously spewing oil toward the coastline he loved, is the last thing Blair would have wanted, DeRouen said. It isn’t what anybody wanted — especially the people running and working the Gulf rigs.

Most people don’t understand the business of deep sea oil drilling, said DeRouen, a consultant engineer. They don’t know about the vast layers of safety precautions that exist.

And clearly, the White House has no clue about the impact the moratorium on drilling will have on the area, he said. It’s not what Blair would have wanted.

“I can guarantee — and Blair is shaking his head up in heaven when I say this — he would not want this ludicrous ban on drilling to proceed because it is going to devastate a lot of homes,” DeRouen said. “He would want his death to be a catalyst to do it better, not to hurt so many people.”

Geneva agrees wholeheartedly. It’s not easy to find jobs, and families depend on the solid income generated from work on the rigs.

“They need to find out exactly what happened so they can start drilling again,” she said. “I know Blair would want all his friends back at work.”

Recovery, or lack thereof

The impact the spill has had on the environment is debilitating, but DeRouen has confidence in the people of the region. They’ll repair, and help nurture the life back into the wetlands, waters and beaches.

Mother Nature will recover, though the process will be long and difficult. The effects Blair’s death will have on his family and friends, however, are permanent and suffocating.

“Blair was a man of faith, family, friend and fun,” DeRouen said. “He was a jovial person. I think he would want this tragedy to not hurt anybody.”

When he was home, Blair would show up to his mother’s home with a bag of birdseed and a bag of corn, ready to feed the birds and squirrels. He cared so fiercely for his family and the world in which they all lived.

Geneva continues to struggle with the knowledge she’ll never have those holiday and family barbecue moments with her son again.

“He would always call and say, ‘Hi Mom, I’m coming home.’ I will miss that more than anything.”

Editor Carlene Peterson has been reporting on the Gulf for GateHouse News Service. You can reach her at