Sometimes we’re not so sure we’re still in the US. We often don’t understand what is right in front of our eyes. After buying a ten pound bag of pecan rice from the local mill, a favorite after last year’s visit, we headed to a highly recommended local eatery. We had also been there last year and still almost drove by the place. This ramshackle building had no windows and a sign so sun faded you almost couldn’t read it. But once inside, we could hardly find a place to sit. The delicious crawfish basket reminded us why. These Cajans sure know how to cook!
Then we drove to Rip Van Winkle Gardens. In the 1830’s a famous actor named Joseph Jefferson who was best known for his performance of Rip Van Winkle, built himself a lovely winter home here. We’ve seen plenty of lovely homes and gardens, so what brought us here was the sink hole story.
There are five areas here about nine miles apart that the locals call islands. They don’t look like islands to us, because they don’t appear to be surrounded by water, but they are slightly higher ground, good spots for building a home in these flood prone areas. Underneath these islands are salt domes, huge gatherings of salt from ancient times when sea water evaporated here. All the salt domes have extensive mining operations underneath. The Rip Van Winkle home was built on a salt dome. A canal was built from the nearby lake to carry the salt to the river and on to market. The other natural resource that seems to be everywhere around here is oil.
November 1980, when the disaster took place, the Diamond Crystal Salt Company operated the Jefferson Island salt mine 1500 feet under the lake, while a Texaco oil rig drilled down from the surface of the lake searching for petroleum. Due to a miscalculation, the 14-inch drill bit entered the mine, starting a remarkable chain of events which at the time turned an almost 10-foot deep freshwater lake into a salt water lake with a deep hole.
It is difficult to determine exactly what occurred, since all of the evidence was destroyed or washed away in the ensuing maelstrom. The generally accepted explanation is that a miscalculation by Texaco regarding their location resulted in the drill puncturing the roof of the third level of the mine. This created an opening in the bottom of the lake, similar to removing the drain plug from a bathtub. The lake then drained into the hole, expanding the size of that hole as the soil and salt were washed into the mine by the rushing water, filling the enormous caverns left by the removal of salt over the years. The resultant whirlpool sucked in the drilling platform, eleven barges, many trees and 65 acres of the surrounding terrain including the gardens around the Rip Van Winkle home. So much water drained into those caverns that the flow of the Delcambre Canal that usually empties the lake into Vermilion Bay was reversed, making the canal a temporary inlet. For a few days this backflow created the tallest waterfall ever in the state of Louisiana, at 164 feet, as the lake refilled with salt water from the Delcambre Canal and Vermilion Bay. The water pouring into the mine caverns displaced air which erupted as compressed air and then later as 400-foot geysers up through the mine shafts
There were no injuries and no human lives lost in this dramatic event. All 55 employees in the mine at the time of the accident were able to escape thanks to well-planned and rehearsed evacuation drills, while the staff of the drilling rig fled the platform before it was sucked down into the new depths of the lake. Days after the disaster, once the water pressure equalized, nine of the eleven sunken barges popped out of the whirlpool and floated back to the lake's surface.
An excellent short video
tells the whole story. We watched a different video, which interviewed one of the salt workers who only spoke French, which left us wondering once again - where are we?