Heart of Louisiana: Lake Peigneur

Jefferson Island -- It may have been the beauty of the oak trees, or perhaps the lake and the duck hunting that attracted the great 19th century actor Joe Jefferson to build a home on the high ground at Jefferson Island. What he didn't know at the time is that his house sat on top of a salt dome.

Salt mining started there in 1920, with workers digging salt from tunnels at depths up 1,800 feet. There was enough salt to mine for hundreds of years but it came to an abrupt end on November 20th, 1980.

"All that morning we had been hearing tremors or feeling tremors at uniform intervals about 10-15 seconds apart," says Mike Richard, owner of Rip Van Winkle Gardens.

Mike Richard operated a nursery at Live Oak Gardens.

"One of the superintendents from the salt mine came by and said we advise you to evacuate all your employees because there's been an accident," he says.

An hour before daylight, a Texaco drilling rig accidentally punctured the salt mine, and what started as a 14" inch hole quickly expanded as the lake began to drain.

The rig was abandoned, and more than 50 mine workers escaped the rushing water. On the surface, Leonce Viator Jr. and his nephew were just beginning the day at their favorite fishing hole.

"I said something is wrong. Water began creeping towards the mine site and the fish were jumping to joy," Viator said.

Within minutes Viator's boat motor was kicking up mud.

The two fisherman pushed their boat toward any pocket of water they could find.

"I said give that boat all the gas she can swallow and lets get out of here," said Viator.

Richard watched from the balcony of a lake front house and shot film with his Super-8 Camera.

"There was nothing we could do for them. They were out in the mud flat. Water had run out and they were stranded on this mucky bottom," Richard said.

The drilling hole expanded to crater size. The drilling platform and a half-dozen barges were swallowed by the swirling vortex of mud and water.

"The crater started growing, It started changing direction. It was peeling off as much as an acre of land at a time, just peeling off," Richard said.

Land collapsed and trees toppled. The panicked fishermen tied their boat to a tree and were rescued by state troopers.

"When I looked over here, my boat was going in that whirlpool and that was the end of (me)," Viator recalled.

As the contents of Lake Peigneur began to spill into the underground salt cavern, the Delcambre Canal, which is just across the lake from there, began to flow backwards and formed the largest waterfall ever in the history of Louisiana.

Water toppled more than 150 feet into the massive sinkhole. It took nearly two days to refill the lake. The home where Richard shot the film collapsed into the water. So did greenhouses and acres of land.

"Today it's still surreal to me and I still have nightmares about it and basically the nightmares are my family is trapped in a house and the house is sinking and i'm trying to get the family out. You ain't gonna get me back down there. I'm scared. I went and seen a priest and he says just say prayers when you go to bed at night. And I said I do that but it still bothers me. Looks like I see that whirlpool spinning. What it would have happened if I would have got stuck in it. But thank god I didn't get stuck in it." said Viator.

Miraculously, no one was killed. But those who experienced the unbelievable are still haunted by what happened on that lake 30 years ago.

You can visit the site of that drilling disaster at what is now called "Rip Van Winkle Gardens". The Jefferson Home and the gardens are located on Lake Peigneur about ten miles south of New I