GULF OF MEXICO — The death Saturday night of BP's blown-out oil well will bring one piece of the catastrophe that began five months ago to an anticlimactic end - after all, the gusher was capped in July.
This, though, is an important milestone for the still-weary residents of the Gulf Coast: An assurance that not so much as a trickle of oil will ever seep from the well that already has ruined so much since the disaster first started. The tragedy began April 20, when an explosion killed 11 workers, sank a drilling rig and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Crews had already pumped in cement to seal the well from the bottom, and officials said Saturday it had set. Once a pressure and weight test was finished, expected to begin around midnight, officials expected to confirm today that the well is permanently plugged.
People who rely on the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline for their livelihoods, though, know the disaster is far from over. They are left to rebuild amid the businesses destroyed by once-oil-coated shorelines and fishing grounds that were tainted by crude. Even where the seafood is safe, fishermen struggle to sell it to consumers who are fearful that it's toxic.
News that the blown-out well would soon be dead brought little comfort to people like Sheryl Lindsay, who owns Orange Beach Weddings, which provides beach ceremonies on Alabama's coast.
She said she lost about $240,000 in business as nervous brides-to-be canceled their weddings all summer long and even into the remainder of the year. So far, she has received about $29,000 in BP compensation.
"I'm scared that BP is going to pull out and leave us hanging with nothing," Lindsay said.
The Gulf well spewed 206 million gallons of oil until the gusher was first stopped in mid-July with a temporary cap. Mud and cement were later pushed down through the top of the well, allowing the cap to be removed.
But officials will not declare it dead until it is killed from the bottom.
For Tom Becker, a charter fishing boat captain in Biloxi, Miss., news that the well was nearly dead is too little, too late. His business has tanked, down more than 60 percent with $36,000 in lost revenue, not to mention the business he'll lose in the future.
"The phones just aren't ringing," Becker said.
"The damage is done. I'm glad to hear the well is sealed because now we won't have to speculate about it happening again. Now let's worry about the future. How can we recover from this, and what do we have to do to bring people back?"
Even aboard the Development Driller III - the ship that drilled the relief well and allowed crews to pump in the cement for the plug - celebrations were muted.
"It's kind of bittersweet because we lost 11 men out here," said Rich Robson, the offshore installation manager on the DDIII vessel. "There isn't going to be any real celebration. To a lot of people, the water out here is a cemetery."
The DDIII crew began finishing their work Thursday, when the relief well being drilled intersected BP's blown-out well. The cement - which will permanently plug the blown-out well from the bottom - started flowing Friday. It had hardened by Saturday, leaving only the pressure test.