Prudhoe Bay worker recovers from explosion

Posted: Sunday, November 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When Don Shugak's long ordeal in Seattle's Harborview Medical Center finally ends, he plans to pick up his guitar again and sing with his gospel group, the Freedom Band.

He's not so sure about resuming his job tending wells in the Prudhoe Bay oil field for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

''I'd have a hard time just going into a wellhouse,'' he said. ''It would be a little traumatic for me right now.''

Shugak, 51, of Anchorage, was nearly killed in a ferocious explosion Aug. 16.

He figures it was only by the grace of God that he never fully opened the door of the small, metal shed housing problem well A-22. The door shielded him from the hellfire that erupted without warning inside.

Yet Shugak's injuries were severe.

When he was flown off the North Slope, Shugak looked like a battlefield casualty. His face was scorched and dark. His backside was burned, too, despite his flame-retardant Nomex coveralls. His right ear, recalls his horrified wife, Edna, was ''all crisp and black.''

His right hand, she said, ''looked like a rubber glove had been pulled down off it. The skin was just hanging there.''

Shugak remains in a wheelchair. A pin holds his broken right femur together. His left femur has three screws in it. His knees were strained when he was blasted against and partly underneath his pickup truck, so he's having to learn how to walk again. To help heal two damaged vertebrae, he must wear a disagreeable piece of torso armor he calls the ''turtle shell.''

Shugak was burned over 15 percent of his body, plus the inside of his mouth. Doctors took skin from his thighs and stomach to graft onto his burned hand.

His daughter, Kendra, stuck by her dad in intensive care. Son Kyle, 20, took off a semester from college to help him through hours of rehab and pluck off dead skin with tweezers.

Bad as it is, Shugak wears an easy smile. The outlook for a nearly full recovery looks good.

Doctors now say he could be discharged from the hospital as soon as this week, though he must stay in Seattle for a while for doctor's visits.

He and Kyle even aim to be aboard their Bristol Bay commercial fishing boat next summer, chasing red salmon.

An Aleut, Shugak was born and raised in the Kodiak Island village of Old Harbor. His dad, Senafont Shugak, ran a store there and a little theater. And fished salmon.

The oldest of 10 siblings, Don Shugak operated heavy equipment and taught school in villages like Nondalton and Anvik. In April 1990, he joined BP through a program to train women and minorities as oil field operators. Field operators can make $80,000 a year to start, Shugak said, so it was a good bump up for him.

''I liked the job. It was just fantastic,'' he said. The only downer was the schedule -- two weeks away from family working on the frigid North Slope, then two weeks off.

Shugak had just started a new shift at 6 p.m. the night of the accident, he recalled from his hospital room.

Oil production in his section of the huge Prudhoe Bay field had been shut down for repairs. Production had just restarted, and Shugak's job was to check 90 wells scattered over three gravel pads for leaks, pressure and temperature problems.

A few hours into his shift, Shugak turned a valve to activate well A-22 as ordered. He said he knew it was one of dozens of wells in Prudhoe Bay with a waiver allowing it to operate with abnormally high pressure. The engineering department said it could operate safely, and the well's gauges looked OK at that time, Shugak said.

The well would heat up as the warm oil flowed, possibly pushing pressure beyond limits. So Shugak would need to return and hook a hose to a valve on the wellhead to bleed off the pressure. The procedure was routine.

He continued his rounds and then drove back to A-22 about 2 a.m.

He grabbed tools and fittings and started to open the wellhouse door with his right hand. Next thing he remembers, he's oddly out of breath and hanging onto the side of his truck.

He couldn't figure out the high pitch, like a tea kettle, filling his ears.

His legs wouldn't work.

A strange, pink tint covered his whole range of vision.

Forty feet of fire was shooting out the top and back of the wellhouse.

He pulled himself along the ruined truck. That's where he thinks he badly burned the underside of his arms.

''I started crawling two and three inches at a time with my elbows. I tried rolling because my elbows were so tired, but my legs kept getting tangled up.

''That's when I hollered, 'God, you've got to help me!' ''

He felt somebody grab the back of his work clothes. It was co-worker Carmine Belotti, who had seen the fire from a distance. He found Shugak about 50 feet from the raging wellhouse and dragged him farther away, behind his own pickup.

More help arrived. They lifted Shugak into the back of Belotti's truck and got out of there.

He woke up two weeks later in Seattle, where he spent time in Harborview's burn unit.

BP engineers determined a steel casing gave way 17 feet below ground level, releasing pressure that erupted through floor boards and gravel in the wellhouse. The clatter knocked off a valve, filling the wellhouse with gas most likely ignited by damaged electronic equipment.

BP executives have stressed that Shugak did nothing wrong.

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