Wasilla man burned in North Dakota drilling rig explosion

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- A 53-year-old Wasilla man with deep Alaska roots suffered burns on his hands and his head in a fiery explosion Tuesday at a North Dakota drilling rig.

Brian Buzby remained in fair but guarded condition at Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck on Thursday, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Buzby, like many other Alaskans, found work in the booming oil fields of the Bakken formation.

The experienced driller was working at a Nabor's Drilling rig located at a Whiting Petroleum Corp. well near Watford City when the accident happened, local authorities said. The town's permanent population in 2010 was under 2,000 but thousands more work in surrounding oil fields.

An ambulance took Buzby to the city hospital but he was later moved to a larger facility in Bismarck where he was still recovering from his injuries Thursday.

His aunt, Wasilla resident Alice Renfro, said she's sending messages to her nephew at the hospital. It's hard to look at the pictures she's gotten from there.

"His hands are burned really bad and his face is burned. His ears are burned," Renfro said Thursday. "You can tell where his safety glasses were."

Buzby, who's been working as a driller since he was 18, was wearing a fire-retardant suit that protected his body, she said. His wife flew down to North Dakota from Wasilla Tuesday night.

There are a lot of other Buzbys tracking her nephew's progress including more than 100 in the Valley alone, Renfro said. The first wave of the family to come to Alaska -- Renfro's grandparents -- arrived in Fairbanks in 1898.

"He's just such a wonderful human being. Besides all of his relatives he has a bajillion friends that are praying for him," Renfro said. "He's tough. He's Buzby tough."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The initial cause was described as "pressure build-up that caused material to escape and ignite," according to a news release provided by the McKenzie County Sheriff's Office, which is based in Watford City.

A Nabor's spokeswoman in Houston said Buzby was not an employee of that company but referred all other questions to Whiting.

Whiting spokesman Brandon Day in Denver, Colo. said Buzby worked under contract. He said the company continues to gather information on what happened at the well on Tuesday and why.

The wellhead has been capped to prevent additional releases and the drilling rig sustained "pretty extensive" damage, Day said. The well is expected to be down for at least a week.

The Bismarck Area office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident.

Area director Eric Brooks said Thursday morning that OSHA hopes to have an investigator at the well site within 48 hours. OSHA prefers to have someone on site within one day in accidents like this one, he said, but officials were still going through the necessary processes to get to the site. He declined to comment further.

The oil and gas industry accounts for half the fatal accidents investigated by the Bismarck office of OSHA, or 37 fatalities out of 79 reported since October 2009, according to Brooks.

The state Department of Mineral Resources hopes to have more information as to the cause of the explosion next week, said spokeswoman Alison Ritter.

"Once our investigation is complete it will be determined if any fines may be necessary, but that could take a few weeks to a few months," Ritter wrote in an email.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.