NEWELLTON, La. — This town of dilapidated white houses set among corn fields has seen its population dwindle in recent years as lumber and health care jobs left.
But on Saturday, hundreds of people poured into town to attend the memorial service for Donald Clark, one of the eleven men killed after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion April 20.
Mourners filled the folding chairs set up inside the Newellton Elemenary School gymnasium, among the largest building n town and where almost everyone went to school. In the bleachers, women in elaborate hats and flowing dresses fanned themselves with programs and fans as a gospel choir sang on stage.
Men who worked on the Deepwater Horizon with Clark filled two rows. Some who witnessed the accident were still visibly shaken from the experience and hesitant to talk about it; one broke down in tears in the hallway before the service began. Another sat in a wheelchair, his right leg in a cast, propped up over a floral blanket. His left leg was covered in red scratches and bruises.
Clark, 48, had been a soybean farmer like his father until he decided to work on the rig. He is survived by his wife, Sheila, and four children.
Clark knew his job was dangerous, his wife said, although he didn’t talk much about perils with his family “He loved his job — the only part he didn’t like was leaving...This is a rural area and they only way you could really make a decent living is to leave home.”
Many in the town of 1,500 located about 4 hours northwest of New Orleans, say that once jobs started to disappear, oil rig work — despite the long commute and 21-day shifts — seemed like a good opportunity. A lumber mill, hospital and nursing home had all closed in recent years, and farm work doesn’t pay the bills.
“It’s the way I support my family,” said Alonzo Petty, the other Newellton resident who was on the rig when the accident occurred. Petty declined to talk about the explosion, but friends said he split shifts with Clark.
“You either own the land, or work for the people who do,” said Dawan Cephus, a family friend of the Clarks who was setting up folding chairs the evening before the memorial service, in between swatting mosquitoes in the dark.
Arthur Brown, a classmate of Clark’s from childhood, said only a handful of their classmates have stayed on after high school.
“Ain’t nothing like home, but there’s no jobs here,” he said, adding that he planned to retire in his hometown, set amid the rivulets of the Mississippi River. .
In Newellton, where people run into each other at Dixie Dandy or Britt’s Pharmacy a few times a day, many still seemed shocked that Clark — described as a cheery man who liked fishing for white perch and catfish — wasn’t coming back.
“He only had two more hours on his shift,” said Matthew Cephus, who was drinking beers in the back of his small brick house with friends, staring at the corn fields. “They say he didn’t even have time to get a lifejacket.”
Because no bodies have been recovered from the accident, there was no casket at the service. A framed picture of Clark stood on an easel in the front of the room.
Although many were still shaken, Clark’s colleagues said they are planning to return to work on the rigs.
“It’s always there, you think about it,” said Micah Lindsey, 32, about the danger. “But it’s a perfect storm of events for that to happen.”
Charles Credeur, who was on the rig when it exploded, is going back to work on a rig doing repair work Tuesday.
“I told him it was his choice,” said Credeur’s girlfriend, Quinta Thompson, who lost her fiancee to an accident on a rig a few years ago. Thompson said she first heard about the Deepwater Horizon accident at Bible study group, and had to wait a grueling few hours before she received word that Credeur was safe.
“Its dangerous work, but you grow up around it, living here,” she said.