ON THE GULF OF MEXICO -- Fly by helicopter above the patchy wetlands along the Mississippi River Delta and past the floating boom and skimmers that have failed to protect the Gulf Coast from the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Keep following the finger-like oil slicks speckled orange and brown that threaten it still.
About 40 miles from the coast a fleet of ships appears. They look like toys packed in a two-mile-square patch of dull water. It's easy to see the approaching drill rig with its 200-foot derrick, offering what is likely the best chance for permanently stopping the nation's worst environmental disaster.
The Sikorsky chopper reaches it and settles on its landing pad. The thwack of the rotors quiets down, and a rig worker steps into the helicopter cabin.
"OK, welcome to the DDII," he says.
Transocean Ltd.'s Development Driller II is one of two rigs slowly grinding their drill bits 13,000 feet below the seafloor until they intersect the well damaged April 20 when another Transocean rig exploded, killing 11 workers and triggering the massive oil leak. A group of reporters that included The Associated Press had a rare chance to tour the rig Saturday.
Once one of the two relief wells intersects the damaged line, BP plans to pump heavy drilling mud in to stop the oil flow and plug the blown-out well with cement.
"It's really not a tough thing to do," said Mickey Fruge, the wellsite leader aboard the DDII for BP, which was leasing the rig when it blew and is responsible for stopping the oil.
But that doesn't mean it's easy. For starters, Fruge's team must hit a target seven inches across, or roughly the size of a salad plate, about three miles below the ocean surface. If the DDII or its sister rig DDIII fail, miss or just move too slowly, oil will keep gushing into the sea. A pair of relief wells took months to stop an undersea gusher in Mexico that started in the summer of 1979.
And no one on the rig has done it before because these deep sea interventions are so rare. That includes Wendell Guidry, Transocean's drilling superintendent, who has been in an oil field for 27 years and worked his way up from a clothes washer. But he insists in his Louisiana drawl that the job is business as usual.
"We try to keep the guys focused," he said. "We're just treating this like we treat any other well that we drill."
Glancing from the rig deck, it's clear this situation is not normal.
Out in the distance, another drilling rig is siphoning off oil and natural gas from the undersea well and burning it in a multi-nozzled flare. It looks like the flames are radiating from an oversized showerhead. Other ships hose off that rig's deck to keep the heat from building.
Meanwhile, a boom attached to a drill ship called the Discoverer Enterprise flares off natural gas taken from a containment cap that is sucking up oil from the well head. The distant flames are a constant reminder that crude and gas are leaking beneath the feet of those aboard the DDII as they walk across the see-through grating on its floor.
The Enterprise sits where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Some of Guidry's crew knew the Transocean workers who died.
It's "always, always on our mind," Guidry said.
BP PLC has said a relief well should be ready by August, and the DDIII is farther along, having reached a depth of nearly 11,000 feet below the seafloor. Still, Guidry said, it's unclear which rig will hit the target first.
"Never know what will happen," he said. "You never know."
Work goes around-the-clock on the DDII, which can hold 176 people. Eight thrusters on the rig keep it precisely positioned over the well it's drilling. The ship is so large that those aboard cannot feel it move on the water most of the time -- unusually still for a vessel at sea.
As its drills cut deeper into the seafloor, it lowers steel casings into the freshly drilled hole. Working through the early morning Saturday, the DDII's crew gradually hoisted 40-foot sections of 18-inch casing with a crane and screwed them together using a 5,500-pound piece of equipment that works like a ratchet.
Fruge said that stretch of casings was cemented Sunday morning and will need until Monday to firm up before work can continue.
Eric Jackson, a tourpusher, was leading a sweaty seven-man crew in grease-smeared helmets and coveralls who were checking and greasing an oversized cap that eventually guided the casing into position. The deck around felt slick beneath a reporter's boots.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the top federal official in the spill response, has said construction on the relief wells remains ahead of schedule. Jackson, however, noted that setbacks are routine on a drilling rig. Hydraulic hoses can snap. Early Saturday morning, one set of tongues used to tighten the riser pipe broke down, forcing the teams to switch to a backup set.
"It's business as usual, man," Jackson said. "Everybody tells us to be, 'Hey, don't let the pressure get to you.' This is what we do for a living, man. We drill wells. It's the same as any other day."