Check out the page Designing Freshman for a brief summary of the Lake Peigneur disaster.  The story is called "A Brief Case History: Lake Peigneur Goes Down the Drain" and is near the bottom of the web page.

A statistical summary titled "Losing a Lake" can be found at the bottom of the page An Accident Waiting to Happen.  Be aware that the information detailed is not 100% correct.

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) is an excellent source for information on the salt dome collapse:
  • "Collapsed Salt Dome Swallows Lake, Land" (November 21, 1980, Section 1, Page 1, Column 1).
  • "Hole Gobbles Everything in Sight" (November 21, 1980, Section 1, Page 1, Column 3).
  • "Mine Gurgles, Belches Noise" (November 22, 1980, Section 1, Page 1, Column 1).
  • "Mine Collapse A 'Freak,' Experts Say" (November 22, 1980, Section 1, Page 15, Column 1).
  • "Description of Cave-In Difficult" (November 22, 1980, Section 1, Page 15, Column 1).
  • "Islander Grieves For Lost Gardens, Trapped Pet Dogs" (November 22, 1980, Section 1, Page 15, Column 5).
  • "Crater: Cave-In Happened Slowly, But Full Force Not Yet Felt" (November 23, 1980, Section 1, Page 1, Column 2).
  • "Barges Pop Up As Lake Refilled" (November 24, 1980, Section 1, Page 1, Column 2).
  • "Flooded Mine Is Probed For Danger of Collapse" (November 25, 1980, Section 1, Page 14, Column 3).
  • "Flooded Salt Mine Throwing Fits" (November 26, 1980, Section 2, Page 3, Column 1).
  • "Texaco Sues In Cave-In" (November 27, 1980, Section 1, Page 27, Column 1).
  • "Salt Dome Bubbles But Stands Steady" (November 29, 1980, Section 1, Page 20, Column 1).
  • "U.S. Experts Leave Dome Cave-In Site" (December 6, 1980, Section 1, Page 26, Column 1).
  • "Suit Claims Woman Was Trapped in Salt Mine" (June 20, 1981, Section 1, Page 23, Column 1).
  • "Feds Cannot Place Blame in Salt Dome Collapse" (August 19, 1981, Section 1, Page 21, Column 1).
  • "Life Changed When the Lake Went Down the Drain" (September 29, 1981, Section 2, Page 8, Column 1).
  • "Piercing of Salt Dome to Cost Texaco, Company Millions" (July 7, 1983, Section 1, Page 18, Column 3).
  • "Life Returns to Normal on the Edge of the Abyss" (November 15, 1981, Section 1, Page 37, Column 1).
  • "Gardens Swallowed by Lake to Blossom Anew" (August 21, 1983, Section 1, Page 22, Column 1).
The Chicago Tribune featured these stories:
  • "Salt Mine Cave-ins Peril Area" (November 22, 1980, Section 1, Page 6, Column 1).
  • "Barges Pop Back Up As Lake Refills" (November 23, 1980, Section 1, Page 16, Column 1).
  • "Lake Survives 'Vanishing Act'" (December 14, 1980, Section 3, Page 21, Column 3).
  • "Freak Accident" (Editorial, December 16, 1980, Section 5, Page 2, Column 1).

And away goes the lake down the drain!

Flashback to Thursday, November 21, 1980.   This day may seem of little importance to you.  However, if you were living near New Iberia, Louisiana, you will probably never be able to forget the strange series of events that took place on this date. 

Initially, this day started out just like any other day (all strange stories seem to begin this way).  The sun was just about to rise on Lake Peigneur.  Located on this 1,300 acre lake, which was just three feet in depth, was Jefferson Island, home to the beautiful Live Oak Gardens botanical park.  Contrasting with this natural beauty were the many oil and gas wells dotting the lake's perimeter. 

Oil Well ImageHere we find the Wilson Brothers Corporation, which had been hired by Texaco, drilling a test hole at Well No. 20.  The first 1,227 feet of drilling seemed to go very smoothly.  But something started to go haywire at 1,228 feet. 

The five-man night crew had run into some drilling problems during their shift and decided to stay a while until the seven men day crew showed up at 6:00 AM.  By 6:30 AM, the drilling rig started to tilt slightly. The crew suspected that the drilling rig was collapsing under their feet.  They radioed Texaco's district office in New Iberia about the problem.  Both crews decided to abandon the platform and head for shore, which was just 200 to 300 yards away. 

The water of Lake Peigneur slowly started to turn, eventually forming a giant whirlpool.  A large crater developed in the bottom of the lake.  It was like someone pulled the stopper out of the bottom of a giant bathtub. 

The crater grew larger and larger (it would eventually reach sixty yards in diameter).  The water went down the hole faster and faster.  The lake had been connected by the Delcambre Canal to the Gulf of Mexico, some twelve miles away.  The ever-emptying lake caused the canal to lower by 3.5 feet and to start flowing in reverse.  A fifty foot waterfall (the highest ever to exist in the state) formed where the canal water emptied into the crater. 

The whirlpool easily sucked up the $5 million Texaco drilling platform, a second drilling rig that was nearby, a tugboat, eleven barges from the canal, a barge loading dock, seventy acres of Jefferson Island and its botanical gardens, parts of greenhouses, a house trailer, trucks, tractors, a parking lot, tons of mud, trees, and who knows what else. A natural gas fire broke out where the Texaco well was being drilled.   Let's not forget the estimated 1.5 billion gallons of water that seemed to magically drain down the hole (does the Coriolis effect come into play here?).  Of course, there was the great threat of environmental and economical catastrophe. 

I'm sure that by now you are wondering what could cause this mess? 

It was actually quite simple:  Texaco was drilling on the edge of a salt dome.  Unfortunately, salt domes tend to be the home of salt mines.  Yes, they drilled right into the third level of the Diamond Crystal Salt Mine that had been operating nearby. 

It's not that Texaco was unaware of the salt mine.  They knew it was in the vicinity, but they did not know that it was exactly where they were drilling.  Texaco had contacted the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had, in turn, contacted Diamond Crystal.  Unfortunately, the necessary communications failed to take place and the disaster occurred. 

Of course, freshwater in a salt mine is a big problem.  When the water comes in contact with the salt, the salt dissolves.  And, of course, in a salt mine, most of the sodium chloride (salt) is removed and pillars of salt are left in place to support the roof above (most of the tunnels were as wide as four lane highways with 80 foot high ceilings).  Dissolve out these pillars and all the land on the surface will start to cave in.  Which, in turn, means that the small hole that Texaco drilled became bigger and bigger as the salt dissolved away. 

I should mention that there were fifty workers in the mine when the disaster occurred.  An electrician working in the mine noticed that water was starting to collect at his feet and heard the gurgling of water over his head.  He quickly called in the alarm.  Luckily, the mineworkers had just held a safety drill on the previous Saturday, so they knew exactly what to do.  The lights were flashed on and off three times and a paging system was used to contact all workers of the evacuation order. 

Nine of the miners were working in the 1,300 foot third level.  They immediately hopped into the mine's steel cage and were hoisted to safety. 

The remaining forty-one workers were working at 1,500 feet below the surface on the fourth level.  They quickly ran up to the third level, only to find that the corridor to the elevators was blocked by waist-deep water.  The workers were able to use some of the carts and diesel powered vehicles in the mine to drive to the 1,000 foot level, where they caught an elevator to the surface. 

That was one close call!  Of course, they all now had to face an even tougher challenge - they were all suddenly unemployed.  After two days of water pouring in, the mine was totally filled and all of the heavy duty equipment used to mine the salt was destroyed. 

Astonishingly, there was no loss of human life, although three dogs perished (Did you ever notice how people get more upset when a dog dies in these oddball stories?  They seem unmoved when it's a person.) 

One man, Leonce Viator, Jr., was actually out fishing with his nephew Timmy on his fourteen foot aluminum boat when the disaster struck.  The water drained so quickly that the boat got stuck in the mud and they was able to walk away!  Luck was certainly on their side. 

Federal mine safety experts from the Mine Safety and Health Administration found it impossible to determine who was to blame for the salt dome collapse (mainly because all of the evidence went down the drain). 

Of course, a  disaster like this leads to endless lawsuits.  Diamond Crystal sued Texaco.  Texaco countersued Diamond Crystal.  The Live Oak Gardens sued both Diamond Salt and Texaco.  One woman sued Texaco and Wilson Brothers for $1.45 million for injuries (bruised ribs and an injured back) received while escaping from the salt mine. 

In the end, Texaco and Wilson Brothers agreed to pay $32 million to Diamond Crystal and $12.8 million to the Live Oak Gardens in out-of-court settlements. 

Eventually, the land above the salt mine stabilized and life returned to normal.  The Live Oak Gardens was rebuilt on its remaining land.  The environmental catastrophe that was anticipated at the time of the accident never materialized.  Nine of the barges eventually popped back up like corks (the drilling rigs and tug were never to be seen again).  The salt mine was permanently closed, but most of the workers were able to find suitable employment.  The torrent of water helped dredge Delcambre Canal so that it was two to four feet deeper.  And of course, the three foot deep Lake Peigneur was now 1,300 feet deep! 

The moral of this story?  The next time that you need a well drilled, make sure someone has checked to see what you are drilling into!