Franklin Co. emergency services chief recalls Gulf cleanup

David Donohue described his 60-day deployment as another platform exploded off the coast of La.

September 02, 2010|By JENNIFER FITCH
  • David Donohue, Franklin County (Pa.) director of emergency services

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- As David Donohue spoke Thursday morning, he wasn't yet aware his comrades from the U.S. Coast Guard were racing to an offshore petroleum platform that exploded off the coast of Louisiana.

Donohue, Franklin County's director of emergency services, was telling the Franklin County (Pa.) Commissioners about his recently completed 60-day deployment to the Gulf Coast as reports started developing regarding the latest explosion.

The commissioners thanked Donohue for his response and talents as well as keeping in contact with his Franklin County staff this summer.

"He was in close contact with his office and his people," said David Keller, chairman of the commissioners.

When asked if he'd return to the South, Donohue said that would be at the discretion of the Coast Guard.

Donohue said he received word June 20 that he'd leave less than two days later for New Orleans. From there, the Coast Guard sent him to Mobile, Ala., to serve as a field operations manager for an incident command post serving Mississippi, Alabama and part of Florida.


Twenty-two other people from Sector Baltimore joined Donohue on the trip in response to the April 20 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon well.

"We had personnel from all over the world," he said.

With them were submarines, ships, smaller boats, a blimp, airplanes and helicopters illustrated in diagrams Donohue showed the commissioners.

It was the largest armada gathered since the Battle of Normandy, Donohue said.

Commissioner Bob Thomas asked how the vessels -- thousands of which belonged to contractors and others that were making deliveries of container goods -- managed to navigate the waters without collision. Donohue, chief maritime enforcement specialist, explained how each boat must be in contact with the Coast Guard and use designated sea lanes.

Commanders "threw rank out the window" and instead assigned people to duties based on their backgrounds and skill levels, Donohue said.

Unlike the hurricanes or acts of terrorism to which Donohue has responded before, he said the oil spill provided the same challenges day after day without respite.

"It was a non-stop disaster," he said.

Donohue worked in external affairs to communicate what was happening to the media, public and outside agencies. He described the oil as similar to "a thick, chocolate syrup" that would sink if not removed from the water's surface.

The heat provided health challenges for personnel, Donohue said. The first responders to the burning rig reported the paint on their vessels started to bubble as they got within three-quarters of a mile, he said.

Booms were used to contain the oil, which could be skimmed or set on fire. Crews attempted to keep the oil away from the beaches and cleaned up the tar balls that made it ashore.

"If it had hit the Florida loop current, right now we'd have oil on the coast of Maryland," Donohue said.

They also cared for creatures like birds and turtles in cooperation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Donohue told the commissioners how crews saved 500 birds during his tenure, and he said wildlife experts gathered turtle eggs from the beaches.

"The Coast Guard and FedEx would transport them to the coast of Florida," he said.

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