The ground was like a sponge and the men's legs sank, in places up to their calves. A rumble of diesel engines filled the air. Then, there was a cry: "Back! Go back!"
Charles "C.J." Bevins, a 23-year-old roughneck, was pinned against a trailer by a forklift. The vehicle was partially sunk into the ground. C.J.'s legs dangled like a rag doll's.
The driver hurriedly backed up, and C.J. crumpled to the ground. As the men milled around, unsure how to help, C.J.'s face went white, his lips blue. He looked up at his friend and colleague Steve Riffle, whom he called "Dad."
"Dad, I ain't going to die, am I? I ain't going to die, am I?"
"No, you will be back to work tomorrow," Riffle said. "You will be all right."
C.J. died hours later at a hospital near the rig site in Smyrna, N.Y.
Oil and gas sites are among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, according to federal labor statistics and an ongoing EnergyWire investigation. Multiple pressures weigh on the people who work in this high-risk, high-reward industry, including the need to produce on schedule and keep costs down. The company men and their workers have a "get 'er done" attitude that sometimes leads to safety compromises that go unnoticed and undocumented.
Sometimes events tilt toward tragedy.
It has been more than a year since the accident. C.J.'s sister, Charlotte Bevins, 26, keeps her brother's blue safety helmet in the back seat of her car.
Since C.J.'s death on May 1, 2011, Charlotte has been driving a few of her brother's old co-workers to their rig jobs. Along the way, she quizzes them about the company's safety culture to piece together why, exactly, her brother died.
When a roughneck dies, the local newspaper runs a short obituary. The company pays for a funeral service. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducts an investigation and fines the company. In C.J.'s case, the fine was $4,900. Under the state's workers' compensation program, family members get a percentage of the victim's monthly salary.
The process is designed for an efficient cleanup. The company pays its share, and it moves on to drilling the next well.
Moving on is a lot harder for families left behind. No one tells them exactly why their brother, father or husband died. They get a letter from OSHA briefly laying out its findings, but they don't get a copy of the investigation report without filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act. To prove willful negligence in court, a high legal bar in most states, survivors assemble cases based on patchy eyewitness accounts in a notoriously opaque industry. Claims against leaseholders or site operators often drag on, before leading to undisclosed settlements that shed little light on what went wrong and how to prevent other tragedies.
"All this time has gone by, and I still don't know really what happened," Charlotte said in the fall at her home in Buckhannon, W.Va. "You know, I lost my brother. I was on my way to see him, and he was gone. I didn't get to say goodbye."
C.J. was 19 and supporting his girlfriend and her 1-year-old daughter, Reagan Page, when he got his first job on a drilling rig. The Bevinses were homesteaders; they had moved to West Virginia in 1998, bought 42 acres in Upshur County and home-schooled the kids. Without a high school diploma, C.J.'s skills were limited. The highest-paying jobs were in the oil fields or the mines.
On a drizzly autumn day, Charlotte drove along Buckhannon's narrow streets. She pulled up at a small house with white siding and a porch littered with a girl's pink playthings. Justin Shelley, 27, gestured her in.
Shelley had the portly shape of a guy who has been confined to a wheelchair for a year. He was relearning to walk after he and two co-workers smashed their pickup truck into a tree at 60 miles an hour. They had been drinking and driving after a long workday on the rig. One-third of all deaths in the industry are due to motor vehicle accidents.
"I mean, it's a dangerous job, working on a rig is dangerous, it is a risk you take," Shelley said. Young men without a college education view the industry as a way out of a life flipping burgers at McDonald's. The jobs can pay up to $100,000 a year, depending on the position on a rig. The average drilling job involves working 12-hour shifts at 14-day stretches before getting some days off. It pays around $20 an hour and a $200 per diem, plus perks like a late-model Dodge Ram pickup.
Shelley's 4-year-old daughter, Riley, just back from school, clambered onto his lap. He hugged her and said, "This is why I do it.
"I'm not going to let my kids grow up like I did."
Shelley said that once he gets better, he would like to return to the rig and work until retirement, moving up the ladder until his education level stops his advancement. He loves working with his hands on the rig.
C.J. told Charlotte he worked in the oil and gas fields to provide for his family, the same reason as Shelley. A second child, Charles Bevins IV, or "Bubby," was on the way. And C.J. enjoyed the camaraderie of the oil field. The men would carpool to distant rig sites and stay four to a hotel room to save on their per diem. They worked long shifts and grabbed beers in the evenings.
"It don't matter what you did to that boy, always had a smile on his face," said James Riley, 37, a gas field worker who knew C.J. "You couldn't work that smile off his face, you couldn't."
One night, Riley recounted, the men made C.J. work on the derrick scrubbing the floor and equipment for hours when the rig was not being used for drilling. The hazing was part of how they trained new workers in West Virginia, Riley and his friends said. Derrick hands were "worms." They repaired, moved equipment, assisted with drilling and did whatever else they were ordered to do, as they worked their way up the totem pole to be a motor man, a mud man, a tool pusher and eventually a driller.
"He loved it," Riley said.
A mining region reawakened
Buckhannon is a blue-collar town of 5,700 people at the foothills of the Appalachians. Drilling and mining jobs around here are vital. There are lumber mills, coal mines and young men there who call themselves hillbillies, and do it with pride.
The area is famous for the Sago coal mine collapse of 2006, in Upshur County just outside town, when lightning ran down a metal rod into an open mine shaft and ignited a pocket of methane. Twelve miners died. National media descended on Buckhannon, and CNN's Anderson Cooper was spotted eating at C.J. Maggie's American Grill on Main Street. Once the circus subsided, Sago's survivors quietly honored the men by installing a monument topped by a miner's safety helmet.
When Sago collapsed, the U.S. energy picture had already started shifting. Technology and massive investment would soon reawaken the near-dormant oil and gas industry in the Northeast. Independent gas producers in Texas had already developed advanced drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a well stimulation technique that blasts chemical-laced water and sand into deep-underground shale formations to free oil and gas.
By 2008, wildcatters and multinational energy companies were pursuing mineral rights to drill in the Marcellus Shale formation underneath Pennsylvania, New York, eastern Ohio and parts of West Virginia. New employers turned up in the hill country around Buckhannon. The town was ready for the ride.
Today, there is a new Microtel Inn that sells rooms for $100 a night and a Sheetz station where a steady stream of pickup drivers refuel with gas and coffee. Main Street is newly tarred. But farther into town, streets are lined with the remnants of previous energy booms and busts. Algae and green fuzz cover the roofs of homes, their paint peeling off.
After 2008, natural gas prices collapsed from $13 per million British thermal units to less than $2 last spring due to an oversupply of gas. Producers started moving rigs out of the Interstate 79 corridor of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Small drillers such as SW Jack Drilling, which had been around for the better part of a century, could no longer survive.
One of the few that did was Braden Drilling LLC, which C.J. joined in January 2011. Norse Energy Corp., a Norwegian company, had hired Braden to drill in New York. Norse had invested heavily in the state, acquiring nearly 180,000 acres. But the company could not tap its shale assets because the state was in upheaval. Pro- and anti-fracking factions were girded for a fight amid a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
Norse was biding its time while drilling conventional gas wells. Braden dispatched C.J. and his crew to the work site in Smyrna in May 2011.
The site had been unstable to work on, according to several people who had been on it. Braden's supervisor on site, Teddy Gribble, asked Norse Energy for 60 rig mats, which are steel-framed wooden pallets that cover the ground and create a stable work surface. They cost about $300 each a day to rent.
"My Lord, can you live with 30?" the construction foreman of Norse Energy asked, Gribble recalled in a court deposition transcript. It was too much of an expense. "Let's try 30."
At the daily safety meeting at his pickup truck, Gribble conveyed the message to his crew and the men set out to work. C.J. asked a colleague to use a forklift to carry a set of steel stairs to be attached to a trailer. He stood in front of the trailer, directing the driver. The vehicle inched forward. Suddenly, the ground gave way. The rear of the vehicle sank into the ground. The boom holding the stairs jerked up toward C.J., pinning him against the trailer at the abdomen and crushing the organs below his diaphragm.
OSHA appeared a day later to investigate and found the forklift driver didn't have the training he needed. The agency did not, however, point to the other problems on the site that day: the unstable work surface, the few mats.
C.J.'s son, Bubby, will get $1,600 a month from West Virginia's workers' compensation program until he is 18 years old. That's a $350,000 payout, a fraction of the $5 million C.J. would have earned if he had worked in the oil fields until retirement. Reagan, the girl C.J. was raising, won't be paid for the loss of the only father she knew. She's not his biological child.
Braden did not respond to EnergyWire's request for comment on C.J.'s death. Norse's chief legal officer, Dennis Holbrook, wrote in an email: "Worker safety is a high priority to Norse. My sympathy and condolences go to the family of Mr. Bevins."
Charlotte received news of C.J.'s death from her father as she was driving.
"C.J.'s dead!" Charles Bevins Jr. barked into the phone before hanging up.
'The company man reigns supreme'
Charlotte favors a black hoodie turned up over her long, blond hair. She likes the little bit of anonymity it provides in a small town. Since C.J.'s death, she has been searching for a reason, almost a conspiracy, that could explain the sequence of events.
She's traveled to the drill site in New York, talked to C.J.'s co-workers, the doctors, the EMT medic who promised C.J. he would be OK en route to the hospital. She even visited a small diner nearby, to find the old lady who had once looked at C.J., then spit between her fingers as if putting a curse on him after finding out he worked in the gas fields.
"I went in there to see if she was there, to see what she did, or what she said," Charlotte recalled. "But she'd died."
There was no conspiracy behind C.J.'s death. Men on the Norse project faced a demanding work environment as they tried to stick to a tight schedule.
A gas drilling operation is complex and fragmented. Multiple contractors are managed by representatives of the operating energy company. These "company men" in turn get orders from senior management that tracks the larger arithmetic of drilling a well, which can cost up to $8 million depending on the reservoir being tapped. The more it costs, the more gas the company needs to extract to break even. Safety considerations sometimes get lost in the realities of operating an oil field.
"To the oil field contractor, the company man reigns supreme, and the company man oftentimes is not focused on safety because he cares more about production first," said John Stephens, an independent safety, health and environment consultant in Texas with four decades of experience in the petroleum and chemical industries.
"Almost every one of the injuries and deaths you will happen upon, it will have something to do with cutting a corner, to save time, to save money," said Tim Bailey, the attorney representing the Bevinses in their lawsuit against Norse and Braden. His law firm, Bucci, Bailey & Javins in Charleston, W.Va., represented victims of the Sago mine collapse and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010.
Part of the problem is the oil and gas industry is experiencing a demographic shift. Older workers are retiring, and there are few men left to train the new, undisciplined roughnecks attracted to the booming industry. The trend has been labeled "The Great Crew Change" by Elaine Cullen, a social anthropologist studying oil and gas workers and the vice president for Northwest operations at Safety Solutions International.
The lack of training has meant that two-thirds of the people who died in Texas oil and gas fields over the past decade had less than a year of experience, according to an analysis of insurance claims presented at an OSHA safety conference in December.
The American Petroleum Institute, the major industry group, told EnergyWire in an email that the "oil and natural gas industry's number one priority is safety." Larger companies do take steps to promote safety and have multiple "safety men" on the rig sites.
But the trend is not uniform across industry, and hundreds of deaths and injuries occur every year. It is difficult to figure out how often safety violations occur because records on the oil and gas extraction industry, which employed half a million people in 2011, are patchy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is slow to update its database, and experts say violations often go undocumented because OSHA rarely inspects rig sites.
Still, from available federal records, OSHA inspectors found at least 45 "willful" violations of safety standards by oil and gas drillers and their support teams since 2006. In 10 of those cases, workers were killed or injured. In one case, two workers welded an oil tank containing 85 barrels of crude oil, which exploded and killed them instantly.
Inspectors found about 6,500 cases of "serious" violations, the designation that most often led to an injury or death. The violations resulted in the death or injury of 248 workers (see chart).
Victor Boyd, 28, a Louisiana transplant working on a rig near Watford City, N.D., for Precision Drilling Corp., caught on fire in September after being sprayed by a hose carrying drilling fluid and hydrocarbons.
"He was a very handsome guy, and his face has been burned off, his body, he has profound burns all over his body," said Douglas Monsour, a lawyer representing Boyd.
Precision Drilling declined to comment on the incident.
Charlotte has heard similar stories about faulty equipment. That fall day, she drove along a gravel path in Doddridge County, flanked by mountains wearing the red and orange of fall. An occasional rig stood in the foreground like a sentinel. Red Halliburton Co. trucks streamed by. She rolled onto a drill site owned by EQT Corp., which is producing Marcellus Shale gas.
Riley, a skinny man with sunken cheeks, in navy coveralls and a white safety helmet, made his way past the Halliburton contractors and trucks and got into Charlotte's car. He had been on site since 6 a.m. as a contractor for Luby Equipment Services. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh as Charlotte pulled away. He said he would get in trouble for talking to outsiders.
"Once you do something like that on the oil field, you are blackballed, you are done for life," he said. "There ain't no if and buts about it, you won't work in another company again on anything that has to do with the oil field."
He said he was ready to talk. "What's right is right, and what's wrong is wrong," Riley said, shrugging, as though his reasoning should be obvious (see video).
When C.J. had been working on Norse's drilling site, the company men pressed the workers to speed up, according to court documents.
"Stuff started messing up, like we had some inexperienced people moving up, drillers and stuff, and they were just making easy mistakes," said his co-worker Shelley.
The failures preceded Norse's bankruptcy and the contractor Braden's shutdown in 2012 as the two companies battled market forces.
Norse could not tap its unconventional shale holdings in New York, which has had a moratorium on fracking since 2008. The company focused instead on the Herkimer sandstone formation, where C.J.'s crew was drilling.
Costs were very much a focus for Norse at the time, as evidenced in the October 2010 earnings report. The company said it would decrease time and cost "through the use of lower cost equipment" to drill the vertical portion of the wells.
A month after the accident, Norse said in its quarterly report that it would revise drilling costs to $1.35 million per well because the company "has not been satisfied" that the money invested in drilling was worth the wells' output.
Despite its efforts, the company's losses widened 84 percent to $61.3 million in 2011. And the Norway-based explorer suffered nine straight quarters of losses before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2012. Norse owed about $32 million to debtors (EnergyWire, Dec. 11, 2012).
Braden shut down last August, letting go of 250 people. The company had lost a major contract after Royal Dutch Shell PLC in 2010 bought East Resources, a Pennsylvania-based gas explorer with which Braden had been doing business.
Braden's shop was located in an isolated part of Buckhannon down the road from a noisy cattle slaughterhouse. During a visit there in September, papers were strewn about across three desks in the modest wood-paneled office. Posters encouraging safe practices were pasted on the walls. Braden's co-owner Dennis Chidester was cataloging his equipment for auction.
Unprompted, he declared that smaller drillers and explorers won't have the financial muscle to stay in business if U.S. natural gas prices stay depressed.
Three independent drilling companies in Buckhannon have shut down or been sold in the past year because they couldn't cope with the low price of gas. Chesapeake Energy Corp. laid off workers in early November. Earlier this year, Union Drilling, a West Virginia fixture for more than a century, was acquired by Texas-based Sidewinder Drilling Inc. Oil and gas is moving out of local hands, and jobs in the coal mines are harder to come by. The question in the air is: Will Buckhannon soon see a bust?
Trouble with 'drilling on air'
Chidester, 62, declined to talk about C.J.'s death because the case is before a court. But he talked about small drilling companies, struggling to stay in business and to stay safe.
More than a century ago, drillers started using air rather than mud to drill wells in West Virginia's gas fields. The technique, called "drilling on air," saves time and money. But the method is dangerous when there are pockets of methane in the ground. Methane and oxygen are a flammable combination.
Chidester recalled at least two projects in New York where his men's air drilling encountered an 80-million-cubic-foot methane pocket. The sound of gas roiling underground was immense, and his men were in danger.
"You have probably been to ballgames where they fly three to five jets overhead. Well, that's about what that sounds like," Chidester said.
In some states, companies are required to switch to drilling mud before they hit a pocket of gas, but they don't always do that. "It is scary," he said.
Two years ago, in Lycoming County, Pa., the operators of a site Riley had been working on risked it, air drilling through a gas pocket. Methane crept up the well bore and leaked out through a faulty seal. The well caught fire.
Riley glanced out of the car as Charlotte drove him back to the rig site later in the day.
Charlotte returned to her family's farm in Buckhannon. The sun was setting. For her, it was not just about her brother anymore. She has been working with a New York state senator on legislation that would require oil and gas workers to go through certified training (EnergyWire, Feb. 5).
She recognizes how important the industry's jobs are to West Virginia, but she contends it's time for men like C.J., Justin Shelley and James Riley to have options beyond the coal mines and gas fields.
For the Bevins family, C.J.'s death took its toll. C.J.'s siblings rarely communicate. They fight a lot these days. Charlotte barely talks to her father, and C.J.'s former fiancée has moved away.
On their 42 acres, vegetation had started taking over C.J.'s garden. Sheep fences were falling apart on the farm. His old red car sat neglected near the horse paddock.
Still today, whenever Charlotte hears a song on the radio that C.J. loved, she thinks that is a sign he is with her.
"Isn't that crazy?" she said. "Whether or not it is the truth, I guess it is helping me get by."