Darin Rupinski was asleep at 9:45 p.m. after a 12-hour shift on the Deepwater Horizon when the explosion rocked the oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico.
The 23-year-old Long Beach resident ran outside, looked up and saw the towering derrick surrounded by fire.
The 2008 Merchant Marine Academy graduate knew exactly what to do from his emergency training at Kings Point.
"I ran up to the bridge and grabbed some radios, a flashlight, a bullhorn and ran back down" to the lowest deck where the lifeboats were stored.
The workers were yelling and screaming. Some jumped 70 feet off the rig and into the gulf. Rupinski and his supervisor tried to create order. "I was using the bullhorn to get people to get into the boats and calm down."
After about 15 minutes, he said his supervisor's lifeboat was filled, lowered to the water and pulled away. After another 5 to 10 minutes, his own boat was filled with about 75 employees, including one who was severely injured with burns and cuts. They motored to a supply boat that was about a half-mile away.
It was 11:15 that night of April 20 before Rupinski finally climbed aboard the supply boat with the rest of the survivors. He then got his first look at the crippled rig across the water: "It was just a huge torch in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico."
Rupinski never expected to be working on an oil rig when he graduated two years ago from the academy. His plans to work as an officer aboard a merchant ship fell through, so he ended up as a "dynamic positioning operator." Rigs such as the 320-foot-tall Deepwater Horizon are not moored to the floor of the gulf, but kept in place over the oil well with thrusters - operated by workers like Lipinski.
Miles off shore, and working with oil pumped from the seabed, Deepwater Horizon might have seemed dangerous, even before the accident. But Rupinski says safety is deeply woven into the corporate cultures of Transocean, the rig's owner, and BP, which contracts it to do the drilling.
"We're filling out paperwork and doing preventive maintenance constantly," he said. "We did lifeboat drills every weekend."
Rupinski was given an indefinite leave of absence but plans to return to a Transocean rig. "With the exception of this, it's probably one of the safest jobs out there," he said.
Rupinski was not injured, but he knew the 11 of his 126 co-workers who are missing and presumed dead. He thinks he survived because his berth was far away from the derrick where the drill operated - and he credits his academy emergency training.
One of his professors, Capt. Timothy Tisch, said he was proud. "He did what he was supposed to do," Tisch said. "What we teach them in their Safety of Life at Sea course is how to be in charge of the crew during shipboard emergencies and specifically abandoning ship: mustering the crew, being a leader and keeping everybody calm and focused, and getting away from the ship."
Rupinski returned to the campus briefly Thursday to get a new military ID because all of his papers sank with Deepwater Horizon.
Rupinski would like to visit again to thank Tisch and another professor who taught his safety classes.
"I'd shake their hands and kiss their feet."
LIFE ON DEEPWATER HORIZON
- The oil rig. Basically a stationary ship with an oil derrick well mounted on it. It has a captain, deck and engineering officers and the drill crew.
When not on duty, employees can watch movies, work out or take training classes toward promotions.