|For a few minutes on Nov. 20, 1980, Leonce Viator Jr. thought that the end of the world had come. It very nearly was the end of the world for him. He was caught in a small boat on Lake Simonette on the day the peaceful, little lake drained, sucking everything floating on it into a salt mine below.
..... Parts of the story are still being sorted out. But the bizarre series of events began when an oil rig drilling on the lake somehow drilled into the mine below. Water from the lake began draining into the mine through that little drill hole. At first it was just a small opening, but as the water began to rush through it, the hole began to enlarge itself. More water rushed through, making the hole still larger, until finally it was big enough to engulf barges, tugboats, and the drilling rig that had begun the whole thing.
.....The first sign of trouble came about 4:30 a.m., when the drill pipe became stuck. It wouldn't turn and it couldn't be pulled up or down. About an hour later the drillers reported "popping" sounds coming from beneath the rig, and then the drilling rig started to tilt crazily toward the lake. Workers scrambled off of it, and everyone was ashore by 7:30 a.m., just in time to watch in amazement as the huge derrick and platform sank beneath the water and disappeared into a lake that was only 11 feet deep.
.....The first signs of trouble in the Diamond Crystal Salt Mine below the lake came just after the rig disappeared. About 8:10 a.m., Junius Gaddison, the mine's master electrician, was working 1,300 feet below ground when he heard an unusual noise. As he looked up, a muddy stream of water more than 2 feet deep was pushing toward him. That noise was the sound of fuel drums banging together as they were carried along by the stream.
.....Gaddison shouted a warning to the shift foreman, Earl Dundas, who was also working at the 1,300-foot level, and began to flash the mine's lights in a warning pattern that the 51 men below ground knew to mean, "Get out of the mine, now." Workers at the 1,300-foot level phoned the man in charge of the elevator to lower it immediately, and also notified the foreman on the 1,500-foot level to evacuate the mine immediately. By the time the elevator cage was lowered, the nine workers on the 1,300-foot level were standing in ankle-deep water.
.....Wilfred Johnson, one of the men at that level, noticed about 6 inches of water beneath his tractor when the warning first flashed. A minute later, he said, the water was 2 feet high and rising evenly across the floor of a 100-foot-wide cavern.
.....At the 1,500-foot level, Randy LaSalle, a maintenance foreman had to drive to several remote areas to pick up miners who had not seen the evacuation signal. He took them up to 1,300 feet, where they and others waited as the eight-man elevator crawled back and forth to the surface. It seemed like it took forever, but everyone was out of the mine by 9 a.m.
But the water continued to drain into it, and to rip away at the lake bottom, and, soon, at the shoreline too.
.....It was about 11 a.m. when Viator and Timmy Dore found themselves stranded in the mud. They were fishing in the northern end of the lake, when, suddenly, the lake drained from beneath them, stranding their boat in the mud.
....."I thought it was the end of the world," Viator would tell newsmen. Several hundred yards away, he saw a huge whirlpool, sucking everything toward it.
.....The water behind him was too shallow for his boat. The way in front of him was blocked by the whirlpool and by barges tied nearby. The mud was too deep to wade through. Viator was saying his prayers when one of the barges in front of him was swept into the whirlpool.
....."It swallowed it in seconds," he said, "like a big fish eating its lunch."
.....Then, another barge snapped its cable and went down the drain. That left just enough room and gave Viator just enough water to run for the shoreline, using every bit of power his outboard could provide to keep himself from the whirlpool.
.....Getting to shore, Viator watched as more barges were sucked into the maelstrom, followed by trees, docks, and other debris now being ripped from the shore.
....."It looked like a lot of toys in a draining bathtub," said one onlooker. "They'd whip around, bobbing up and down, and then bloop, they'd disappear."
.....Soon, most of the bottom of the lake had collapsed, creating a huge hole hundreds of feet deep. Now, it had dropped below the level of the Delcambre Canal, a narrow channel that flows from the lake to the Gulf. As the lake level dropped, the canal began to pour more water into the lake. At one point, water from the canal was falling 50 feet into the collapsed lake, roaring like the waterfall that it had become.
.....Even a tugboat running at full throttle in the canal could not overcome the force of the gulf waters rushing toward the lake. It was dragged backward and into the crater as the crew leaped safely onto the canal bank.
.....According to the official report by federal mine safety investigators, "while the miners were escaping, the inundation rapidly became a torrent as water from Lake Simonette drained into the mine at the 1,300-foot level. As the lake began emptying into the mine, a vast whirlpool approximately one-fourth of a mile in diameter developed in the lake. It caught in its grip a tugboat, a string of barges, and two Texaco oil rigs. Two boats on the lake managed to power their boat to shore. Within the next three hours, the entire lake disappeared into the mine. Normally, water from the lake flowed out through the Delcambre Canal to Vermilion Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. With the emptying of the lake, however, the water was flowing from the Delcambre Canal into the crater. This reverse flow continued for the next two days until the lake was once again filled with water, and the normal flow out into the canal recommenced. Approximately 30 shrimp boats in the canal, which was lined with seafood companies, were beached when the water level dropped as the canal was refilling Lake Simonette. They were later refloated when the lake stabilized and the canal rose to its normal level."
.....J. Lyle Bayless Jr., who then owned Live Oak Gardens on Jefferson Island, watched all of this from his lakefront home. Sheriff's deputies ordered him off the property at noon, just before his house tilted, then slid into the waves. (The chimney sticks out of the lake beside the present Rip Van Winkle gardens, marking the spot where the house once stood. All told, more than 50 acres of garden would slide beneath the water.)
.....The lake would eventually fill the salt mine and two days later had finally refilled itself. Someone figured that it took 3 1&Mac218;2 billion gallons of water to fill the space in the mine. As it happened, nine or 11 barges that had been sucked into it, popped to the surface, one-by-one, like giant corks that had been held at the bottom of a pail.
.....Throughout the entire ordeal there were no deaths or serious injuries. At the time of the accident, the mine operated around the clock three eight-hour shifts per day, seven days a week. Diamond Crystal employed 297 people to man the mine. All but a handful of them were thrown immediately out of work.
.....Five days after the inundation, Diamond Crystal gave out awards for heroism to Earl Dundas, Junius Gaddison and fellow mine workers Wilfred Johnson, Louis Babin and John Vice. When officials found out later about Randy LaSalle's search by truck for workers in remote areas of the mine, he was also cited for heroism.
.....Residents of Jefferson Island, who were evacuated on Nov. 20, were allowed to return home on Nov. 27. That was Thanksgiving Day.