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Crews hunt for oil rig worker lost in Gulf of Mexico blaze

| Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, 9:10 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — As crews searched on Sunday for a worker still missing after an oil platform explosion and fire, doctors said one of four men burned in the blaze is improving and is now in fair condition.

Two remained in critical condition and one in serious condition, doctors said.

The company that owned the platform that caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico pledged on Sunday to keep searching for a second worker missing after a body was found in about 30 feet of water near one leg of the platform.

At Baton Rouge General Medical Center's burn unit, Wilberto Ilagan, 50, of the Philippines told Dr. Jeffrey Littleton that he wanted to send a message, according to a news release issued on Sunday.

“To my relatives, to my family, and to my country, I am alive and in good health,” Ilagan said. “I am burned, but my heart and lungs are healthy.”

According to The Advocate, Littleton said on Sunday that the other men's names are being withheld because they have not given their consent to release them.

The Philippine Embassy in Washington has said all of the workers are from the Philippines.

The remains of the unidentified person were found on Saturday night by divers hired by Houston-based Black Elk Energy, Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega said. The Coast Guard, which has suspended its search, would turn over the body to local authorities, he said.

John Hoffman, president and CEO of Black Elk Energy, has said the body is apparently one of two crew members missing since an explosion and fire on the oil platform on Friday morning. Hoffman said the body was found by a contract dive vessel.

He wrote in an email on Sunday morning that a second dive vessel was brought in to speed up the search for the second missing worker.

“The workers impacted by this accident continue to be our primary focus,” Hoffman wrote.

Hoffman said the body was found near where the explosion occurred. The missing and wounded workers were employees of oilfield contractor Grand Isle Shipyard, he said.

GIS CEO Mark Pregeant released a statement that the company has notified the families of those involved but was declining to release their names, WWL-TV in New Orleans reported.

The Coast Guard suspended its own search earlier Saturday after 32 hours spent covering 1,400 square miles near the oil platform, located about 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La.

Authorities have said the blaze erupted Friday morning while workers were using a torch to cut an oil line on the platform.

Pregeant's statement, however, said the cause of the fire and explosion is unknown and that “initial reports that a welding torch was being used at the time of the incident or that an incorrect line was cut are completely inaccurate.”

A man who answered the phone at the company's Galliano, La., office on Sunday said the company had no comment.

Separate from the explosion, Grand Isle Shipyard is facing a lawsuit by a group of former workers from the Philippines who claim they were confined to cramped living quarters and forced to work long hours for substandard pay. The lawsuit was filed in late 2011 in a Louisiana federal court and is pending. Lawyers for the company have said the workers' claims are false and should be dismissed.

The workers recently obtained conditional class certification for allegations that Grand Isle Shipyard didn't pay them properly for overtime and may have violated other fair-labor standards, said attorney Joseph C. Peiffer. He said a notice will go out soon to let other workers know they might be able to join the lawsuit.

He said he was not representing the injured workers, but didn't rule out the possibility that he might do so.

Meanwhile, Black Elk said no oil was leaking from the charred platform, which hadn't been operating since August.

Black Elk Energy is an independent oil and gas company. The company's website says it holds interests in properties in Texas and Louisiana waters, including 854 wells on 155 platforms.

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