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Images: Four Men. Twelve Hours. One Crucial Sample.

At nightfall, researchers at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout faced an apocalyptic scene, as crews worked night and day to burn off oil and gas that had come to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Dan Torres, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WHOI environmental engineer Rich Camilli aboard the R/V Endeavor. (Photo by Dan Torres, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WHOI research associate Sean Sylva about half a mile from the scene of the disaster. The area became crowded with oil recovery vessels, ships attempting to burn off or soak up oil from the surface, and research ships. (Photo by Ben Van Mooy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

"We had one shot to make this happen," said WHOI chemist Chris Reddy, about the team's effort to collect a sample of oil and gas directly from the Macondo well. (Photo by Ben Van Mooy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

At the request of the U.S. Coast Guard, WHOI investigators Rich Camilli, Chris Reddy, and Sean Sylva were taken by fast boat from the R/V Endeavor to the Ocean Intervention III to attempt the near-impossible: collecting a pristine sample of the oil and gas flowing from the well at the bottom of the Gulf, before it mixed with seawater. The OI III is equipped with a helipad (left), massive cranes and winches (right), and two remotely operated vehicles (housed in cages amidships). (Photo by Dan Torres, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

When the fast boat arrived at the OI III, cables hauled it—and its passengers—aboard. The remotely operated vehicle that would be used to collect the sample was housed in a cage on deck aft of the fast boat. (Photo by Dan Torres, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WHOI research associate Sean Sylva with the isobaric gas-tight (IGT) sampler, just prior to sending it to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The sampler was developed at WHOI to collect fluids from hydrothermal vents, but its ability to hold materials at very high pressures made it the ideal device to gather oil and gas spewing from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead. Behind Sylva is one of the remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, that wielded the sampler. The ROV is owned and operated by the commercial firm Oceaneering.

(Photo by Chris Reddy)

The researchers endured many heart-stopping moments as the ROV’s manipulator hand sometimes lost its grip on the IGT sampler (black and silver device, center). At times only the bright yellow cord that tied the sampler to the ROV kept it from being lost. (With permission of U.S. Coast Guard and Rich Camilli, WHOI)

Once the manipulator arm secured the IGT sampler, it maneuvered the instrument toward the jet of oil and gas shooting out of the broken riser pipe (left). Here, the sampler’s thin snorkel can be seen approaching the jet. Technicians from Oceaneering handled the arm and ROV by remote control from the ship at the surface.

(With permission of U.S. Coast Guard and Rich Camilli, WHOI)

The next morning—after working all night and capturing the critical sample—Camilli, Reddy, and Sylva returned to the R/V Endeavor to resume their other research on the spill. Lt. Parker had already taken the sampler, containing its precious cargo, directly from the OI III to shore. From there he and Lt. Joseph Kusek drove it to Woods Hole.

(Photo courtesy of Oceaneering)

Back in Woods Hole later in the summer, with Camilli and Reddy observing, research associate Sean Sylva (center left) and geochemist Jeff Seewald (right) carefully opened the sampler’s valve to extract the oil and gas. The team succeeded in obtaining a sample of the material jetting from the broken riser pipe, before it mixed with seawater. Theirs was the only sample collected from the well after the blowout. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)