The Deepwater Horizon on fire Wednesday.
The Deepwater Horizon on fire Wednesday.
Dale Burkeen was a crane operator on the massive oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last Tuesday night and was trained to lower crew members to boats in such an emergency.

One hundred and fifteen workers escaped the inferno in the five minutes or so they had to evacuate, but Burkeen and 10 other men died.

Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, of the Sandtown community, was remembered this week as faithful father, a hard worker, an avid outdoorsman and a good friend who showed compassion to those in need, even strangers.

It was Burkeen's responsibly to get his crew off of the rig and that's exactly what he did, family members said.

Another Philadelphia man, Stenson Roark, was on the rig and escaped, The New York Times reported.

"Looking out there, watching the rig burning, knowing they're out there, it's a horrible feeling," said Roark, 26, an electronics technician from Philadelphia, who was still wearing his grease-covered red coveralls when he got into the car with his family to head home.

"It was almost 24 hours before I could make contact" with family, Roark said. He finally reached them through a cell phone that crew members passed around in the rescue vessel.

Burkeen had returned to the rig about a week before the explosion. He and wife Rhonda have two children, Aryn, 14 and Timothy, 6.

His parents are Mary and Roger Burkeen, an employee of the Neshoba County Road Department.

The blast occurred about 10 p.m., April 20 aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

Officials from Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig under lease to British Petroleum, confirmed to family members on Friday that Burkeen died in the explosion, although his body was not recovered.

"They said he never made it off the rig," the family said.

Burkeen was trained to hook a personnel basket to his crane and transport crew members from the rig to boats in the event of an emergency which would warrant an evacuation, said Claudie Embry, Burkeen's first cousin.

He and other family members said they were confident that Burkeen did everything in his power to get the men off the rig, even if it meant sacrificing his own life.

Burkeen was a dedicated family man who never turned his back on a person in need, many said.

An outdoorsman, he enjoyed hunting and fishing and had recently purchased a gun for his son because he wanted to instill a love of hunting in him as well.

Burkeen's parents worked on dairy farms while he was growing up.

His cousin, Darryl Bryan, remembered spending the night in the Burkeen home and Dale, 10 years old at the time, getting up at 4 a.m. to help with the milking.

"He worked hard all his life," Bryan said. "I don't know a better man than him."

Burkeen attended Neshoba Central High School though he opted to get a GED (General Educational Development) certificate instead of graduating.

He later earned a degree in welding at East Central Community College. Burkeen had previously worked at U. S. Electrical Motors and Pearl River Resort, where he made many friends.

Among them was Kenneth Billings, who recalled Burkeen's genuine compassion for people in need, even strangers.

"He was the kind of person who would always do everything that he could to help somebody in need, even to his own detriment," Billings said.

The two friends spent a lot of time together when they were in their early 20s prior to marrying.

After partaking in the Neshoba County Fair for several days and nights one particular year, the two friends decided to go fishing.

"We had been to the Fair every night," Billings said. "We decided to go grenal fishing in the river swamp down at Spring Creek."

After large fish kept breaking Burkeen's line, he made the comment to Billings that if it happened again he was going to quit fishing and go back to the Fair.

"It wasn't long that he got a bite, reared back and broke his line intentionally and with a grin on his face said: 'Now, let's go back to the Fair.'"

Burkeen centered his life on his wife, children, parents, two sisters and other extended family members.

"Dale was just a good ole country boy and the thing that always came first to him was family," Billings said. "The one thing he always wanted to have was a family: a wife, children and a good job. He never wanted material things. That wasn't his goals. His were a lot simpler than that. He wanted a happy family and to be able to provide for his kids. He didn't care about the frills and all the finer things in life. That wasn't what was important to him."

Burkeen often talked about his love for his job on the oil rig, though it was stressful at times, Bryan said.

"I talked to him about his job and how stressful it was," he said. "He was responsible for everyone on that rig floor working on his crew.

He was running the show below him. His job was to make sure everybody was safe."

Bryan feels confident that Burkeen died a hero to the men he oversaw.

"The man I knew would never bat an eye; he would do what he was trained to do," he said. "I guarantee you that he lived up to every one of his responsibilities before he would have even though of himself."

Embry agreed.

"He wouldn't leave anybody behind," Embry said. "He would make sure his crew was out first."

One of the reasons Burkeen loved his job so well was because he worked 14 days and then was home 14 days with his family.

He felt that he really had more time to spend with his family than a man working eight hours a day, five days a week, Embry said.

"He didn't want his wife, Rhonda, to work because he wanted her home when he was there," he said.

Embry recalled Easter Sunday and watching Burkeen hunt eggs with his son, whom he called Bo.

"Dale didn't want to hide the eggs, he wanted to hunt them with Bo," Embry said. "He wanted to help Bo find the prize egg. He was a kid at heart and his boy was his world."

Burkeen also thought the world of his daughter, Aryn, who lives in Alaska with her mother, Karen Knight, a third-grade teacher.

Aryn was scheduled to come to Philadelphia in May to spend time with her father who was going to teach her how to drive a car.

"Dale was a good man and a good father," Knight said. "I couldn't have asked for a better and more loving father to my daughter. I am glad he was a part of our lives and am heartbroken for my daughter losing her father. I pray that Aryn, Rhonda and Timothy hold on to the fact that Dale loved them and his parents and sisters as much as any man could love someone."

Janet Woodson, Burkeen's sister, said the family was still trying to come to terms with their loss after praying that he somehow survived the explosion.

It is comforting to know that he probably saved numerous lives, she said, but family members were initially praying for a miracle.
Woodson said her brother was an avid fan of the television show "Man vs. Wild" on the Discovery Channel.

He often joked that if anything every happened he didn't want us to give up on him because he could survive in such places as a desert or rain forest, she said.

"After the explosion we just couldn't help but hope that maybe he was able to swim to an island or someplace," she said. "But, I guess it just wasn't meant to be."

Woodson recalled the happy childhood she, Dale and their sister, Felesia Hamilton, had growing up.

Like most siblings, they had their share of childhood quarrels but in the end they remained close knit.

Dale was only 18 months older than Janet, so the two shared mutual friends growing up.

"We played hooky from school together a lot of times," she said with a laugh. "Dale was my friend. We did almost everything together."

When another student picked on his first grade sister on the school bus, Dale was quick to put an end to it, Woodson said.

Even as an adult, Burkeen was protective, not only of his immediate family, but his nieces and nephews as well.

"He was planning to get a horse and a swimming pool this summer not just for his kids to enjoy but also his nieces and nephews," Woodson said. "He felt like they were all his kids."

Deepwater Horizon was a 400-foot by 250-foot rig, which is roughly twice the size of a football field.

Adrian Rose, vice president of Transocean, said the explosion appeared to be a blowout, in which natural gas or oil forces its way up a well pipe and smashes the equipment. But precisely what went wrong remains under investigation.

Crews were doing routine work before the explosion and there were no signs of trouble, Rose said.

A total of 126 workers were aboard the rig when it blew up. The Coast Guard said 17 were taken by air or sea to hospitals. Four were reported in critical condition. Others suffered burns, broken legs and smoke inhalation.

The rig was tilting as much as 10 degrees after the blast and authorities were hoping they could cool the rig down enough to search it Thursday, but the massive structure collapsed and sunk into the sea.

The rig, which was under contract to the oil giant BP, was doing exploratory drilling but was not in production, Transocean spokesman Greg Panagos said. Seventy-nine Transocean workers, six BP employees and 41 contract workers were aboard.

BP had been expected to announce one of the largest oil finds in North America as a result of the drilling.

Ted Bourgoyne, a retired professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University, said the explosion was probably caused by natural gas or a mixture of oil and gas coming up through the well, combined with some kind of ignition source.

He said there are numerous defenses on a modern rig to prevent something like that from happening. For instance, fluids used in drilling are weighted with barium sulfite to prevent gas from traveling up the well, and there are alarms to alert workers to gas.

Machinery is built to prevent sparking and is placed as far away as possible from places where gas might leak.

"In almost all of these things, there's not one thing that happens; it's a series of things," Bourgoyne said.

Rose said the crew had drilled the well to its final depth, more than 18,000 feet and was cementing the steel casing at the time of the explosion.

"They did not have a lot of time to evacuate. This would have happened very rapidly," he said.

According to Transocean's website, the Deepwater Horizon was built in 2001 in South Korea and is designed to operate in water up to 8,000 feet deep, drill 5 1/2 miles down, and accommodate a crew of 130. It floats on pontoons and is moored to the sea floor by several large anchors.

The site of the accident is known as the Macondo prospect, in 5,000 feet or nearly a mile of water.

Workers typically spend two weeks on the rig at a time, followed by two weeks off. Offshore oil workers typically earn $40,000 to $60,000 a year - more if they have special skills.

Last September, the Deepwater Horizon set a world deepwater record when it drilled down just over 35,000 feet at another BP site in the Gulf of Mexico, Panagos said.

"It's one of the more advanced rigs out there," he said. Panagos did not know how much the rig cost to build but said a similar one today would run $600 million to $700 million.

Working on offshore oil rigs is a dangerous job but has become safer in recent years thanks to improved training, safety systems and maintenance, said Joe Hurt, regional vice president for the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

Since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.

There are 42 rigs either drilling or doing upgrades and maintenance in depths of 1,000 feet (300 meters) or greater in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the agency. They employ an estimated 35,000 people. Transocean has 14 rigs in the Gulf and 140 worldwide.

The deadliest offshore drilling accident took place in 1988, when an Occidental Petroleum platform about 120 miles (195 kilometers) off Aberdeen, Scotland, was rocked by explosions and fire. A total of 167 men were killed.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.