Lake Peigneur, the biggest man-made vortex ever

In 1980, Lake Peigneur was an unremarkable body of water located near the Gulf of Mexico and New Iberia, Louisiana. The freshwater lake covered 1,300 acres of land and was only eleven feet deep. A small piece of land, Jefferson Island, was home to a beautiful botanical park. Deep beneath the lake there was a salt mine.

Today Lake Peigneur is still an unremarkable body of water. But it is now a 1,300 foot deep saltwater lake. We tell you the story of the biggest man-made whirlpool accident ever made. Early in the morning on November 21, 1980, workers decided to abandon their oil drilling rig on the suspicion that it was beginning to collapse. They had been probing for oil under the floor of Lake Peigneur when their drill suddenly seized up at about 1,230 feet below the muddy surface, and they were unable free it. In their attempts to work the drill loose, the men heard a series of loud pops, just before the rig tilted precariously towards the water.

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Lake Peigneur

Concluding that something had gone wrong, the men on the platform cut the attached barges loose, scrambled off the rig, and moved to the shore. Shortly after abandoning the $5 million drilling rig, the crew watched in amazement as the huge platform and derrick overturned, and disappeared into a lake that was supposed to be only eleven feet deep. Soon the water around that position began to turn. It was slow at first, but it steadily accelerated until it became a fast-moving whirlpool a quarter of a mile in diameter, with its center directly over the drill site.

As the whirlpool was forming on the surface, an electrician working in the salt mines below heard a loud, strange noise coming towards him. Soon he discovered the sound’s source: fuel drums banging together as they were carried along the shaft by a knee-deep stream of muddy water. He quickly called in the evacuation alarm. Many of the 50 miners working that morning, most as deep as 1,500 feet below the surface, saw the evacuation signal and began to run for the 1,300 foot level, where they could catch an elevator to the surface. Although it seemed to take forever to get out using the slow 8-person elevator, all 50 miners managed to escape with their lives as the mine below them filled with water.

Clearly, the salt dome which contained the mine had been penetrated by the drill crew on the lake. Texaco, who had ordered the oil probe, was aware of the salt mine’s presence and had planned accordingly; but somewhere a miscalculation had been made, which placed the drill site directly above one of the salt mine’s upper shafts. As the water poured in through the original 14-inch-wide hole, it quickly dissolved the salt away, making the hole grow bigger by the second. The water pouring into the mine also dissolved the huge salt pillars which supported the ceilings, and the shafts began to collapse.

Meanwhile, up on the surface, the tremendous sucking power of the whirlpool was causing violent destruction. It swallowed another nearby drilling platform whole, as well as a barge loading dock, 70 acres of soil from Jefferson Island, trucks, trees, structures, and a parking lot. The sucking force was so strong that it reversed the flow of the 12-mile-long canal which led out from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico, and dragged 11 barges from that canal into the swirling vortex, where they disappeared into the flooded mines below. It also overtook a manned tug on the canal, which struggled against the current for as long as possible before the crew had to leap off onto the canal bank and watch as the lake consumed their boat.

Lake Peigneur
The ruins of a building stand in the water of Lake Peigneur on Jefferson Island (Photo by Philip Gloud)

After only three hours, the lake was drained of its 3.5 billion gallons of water. The water from the canal, now flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, formed a 150-foot waterfall into the crater where the lake had been, filling it with salty ocean water. As the canal refilled the crater over the next two days, nine of the sunken barges popped back to the surface like corks, though the drilling rigs and tug were left entombed in the ruined salt mine.

Lake Peigneur
Waterfall filling Lake Peigneur with salt water

Despite the enormous destruction caused by the vortex, no human life was lost in this disaster, nor were there any serious injuries. Within two days, what had previously been an eleven-foot-deep freshwater body was replaced with a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake. The lake's biology was changed drastically, and it became home to many species of plants and fish which had not been there previously. The owners of the Crystal Diamond salt mine received a combined $45 million in damages from Texaco and the oil drilling company, and got out of the salt mining business for good.