BP hires fishermen for rig clean-up operation

Look along the spectator stands inside the gym of the Boothville elementary school, and you will catch the name of the student basketball team painted in red and white. It's the Oilers. But no one was in the mood for humour yesterday, even of the dark kind. They wanted to get certification – and with it – work.

A little over 200 fishing boat captains were crammed at desks inside, almost like pupils waiting for the start of an exam. Instead, they were eyes and ears for David Kinnaird, a BP community outreach organiser, to get the morning's business started. If they take this basic safety course there is a decent chance the company will hire them and their boats to combat the oil spill spreading down the coast.

Not everyone will get to be taken on, he warns from the outset. But make no mistake, this is a big part of BP's effort to confront the storm of anger which is already battering it, 13 days after a rig it was operating nearly 50 miles out to sea blew up and sank, killing 11 men and releasing the oil slick which continues to menace coastlines here and to the east all the way to northern Florida.

"We are trying to put money back in your community; that is why we are here," Mr Kinnaird offered, before handing over to an interpreter brought in for the many Vietnamese who have boats in this area. "And we need your local knowledge, we need your boats and we need your crews."

Outside the doors to the gym, a gaggle of men is growing angry. The gym is full to capacity and they have not been allowed in, even though some inside are not from Plaquemines Parish, which covers all of the Delta peninsula as it extends south into the Gulf. Soon Mr Kinnaird comes out to calm nerves. "If we had turned anyone away, there would have been a riot," he contends.

Mr Kinnaird, a Briton who has lived in Texas for nearly 20 years, was probably right. There is a quiet fear among fishermen in the region, who have already seen one of their most important shrimping areas closed down because of the fast-approaching slick. Almost 25 per cent of the shrimp and oysters caught in the US come from their nets. They can make good money. But now they stand to be ruined.

As part of BP's ever-escalating budget for coping with what may become the biggest oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster, the company is preparing to hire hundreds of people like this. If their boat is less than 32ft, which mostly they are, they will be paid $1,200 (£785) a day, first to help lay the floating booms which will help to protect fragile wetlands as well as so-called sorbent pads, which absorb oil but not water.

For men like Jonathan Wilson, 37, who has been shrimping here in Plaquemine Parish all his adult life, the offer from BP may almost turn out to be an opportunity for a job change that he could not have imagined before the crumpling of the Deepwater Horizon rig on 20 April. "Honestly, I would rather work for BP than catch shrimp. The price of shrimp has been down recently."

That doesn't mean there is not frustration with BP among the residents. Like many, Mr Wilson, whose boat is a 27ft Lafitte skiff, is clear that the company was too slow reacting to the spill and equally tardy in turning to people like him for help. "I think they have been much too slow, they should have done all of this the day they knew that they weren't going to be able to shut that oil off."

Mr Kinnaird, who has promised those locked out of the gym that a second training class will start in the afternoon, agrees that the fishing community offers BP an important resource. "They know when the tide will take the oil out and bring it again, for instance. We want to put all that experience to work."

He declined to say how much the company is prepared to pay for the armada it is now assembling from these men. When Mr Wilson and others like Barry Labruzzo, 32, who has fished waters off a neighbouring parish for 15 years and also faces professional ruin, finish here they will be a handed a certificate saying they have taken the basic training.

The piece of paper will be replaced by a more formal card in a couple of days. By then, with luck, they will be out on the water already laying the booms and the pads. Assuming the slick is eventually controlled and dispersed they will turn to the next job: cleaning up the mess the slick will most certainly leave behind. It could take years.

From lehman to BP, the face of disaster

When Andrew Gowers left the 'Financial Times' in 2005 after four years as editor, he might have thought entering corporate public relations would offer a quieter life than the turmoil of newspapers. Little did he know he would find himself as the PR front man for two of the largest, and most pored-over, corporate disasters in recent history: the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank and, now, the Louisiana oil spill from a rig leased by his present employer, BP.

In what must count as one of the more arduous of career progressions, Mr Gowers, 53, joined Lehman as head of communications in 2006, and witnessed first-hand the bank's implosion in 2008. He subsequently revealed that the day before the collapse, he spent hours on the phone assuring journalists that the bank was safe, only to be told hours later by its chief executive that it was about to go bust.

Now, Mr Gowers finds himself doing the media firefighting for Britain's largest oil company as it faces the ramifications of the largest oil spill in its history. He is unlikely to be paying too much attention to the advice of his predecessor in the post, Roddy Kennedy, who said: "Very often doing nothing is the best course of action. Always take plenty of time to think before you act."

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