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Suicide is called another casualty of BP oil spill

An Alabama charter boat captain kills himself after he was forced to do something he hated: working for BP on the cleanup. Now, a close-knit community worries there may be others suffering silently.

June 24, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

On Wednesday, several fellow captains stopped by Kruse's modest single-story ranch house. The captain's widow welcomed them. They were his second family, a society in which Kruse was considered a big name. She withdrew from the crowd, preferring the deck that overlooks a river that translates as "good comfort."

"It's not like he was broke or destitute," Frank Kruse said. His thoughts turned to others who may be in the same position his brother was in. "I can't imagine what some of these people are doing. They're mortgaged up to the hilt."

Linda Abston, a friend of the family, also came to the house. She has seen business plummet at her hair salon, Cut N Up, next door to a Winn Dixie supermarket on Perdido Beach Boulevard in Orange Beach. After the spill, her five employees fled to sell T-shirts or cut hair in Pensacola and Tuscaloosa, Ala. Now Abston, a perky blond, is stuck with $6,000 monthly overhead.

On Monday, she said, she tried to file a claim with BP for $5,000 but was referred to a succession of claims agents.

"I'm thinking they're going to do the right thing. By Friday, I'm at my wits end. That's when I get the call about Rookie," Abston said. She stood on the Kruses' enclosed porch and cried. Kruse relatives soon surrounded her.

"I can absolutely understand how he felt," Abston said. "Because it is so much pressure, trying to manage with this cesspool and the uncertainty of it all."

On June 12, Abston attended a protest at Perdido Pass in nearby Orange Beach toting a sign, "God help us."

There she met Riki Ott, the Alaskan marine biologist and commercial fisherman who became an environmental activist after responding to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Ott recalled how, in the wake of that spill, fishermen in the town of Cordova, Alaska, turned against one another instead of working together to overcome surging anxiety, post-traumatic stress, domestic violence and alcoholism. There was one high-profile suicide, she said, with a note that attributed the death to the stress of dealing with Exxon.

It is not clear whether people here could turn on one another as they did in Cordova, or turn a gun on themselves, as Kruse did. Tensions ebb and flow like the tides.

On the Kruse porch, a fishing pole was propped in the corner. Ryan said the last time he saw his stepfather was Tuesday night when Kruse lay in bed, despondent. Ryan said he did the only thing he could do — told his stepdad he loved him and gave him a hug.

Now Abston was leaning down and folding Ryan's skinny frame into her arms.

"We had to do it," she said of turning to BP for help.

It was also not clear what the family will do now to make ends meet.

"There's things you guys are going to need, but right now is not a good time to sell the boat," Marc Kruse told Ryan. He said other captains would probably lease the boats. Ryan nodded as though he understood.

"Y'all don't have to worry about nothing," Marc Kruse said. "Just take care of your mama."

BP offered to pay for the funeral, and Kruse's family accepted. His body was released by the coroner Thursday, and they are searching for a church big enough to contain the expected crowd.

A BP official came to the house Wednesday to offer counseling, and later sent a chaplain. "We all need counseling. I feel like I do," Ryan said as he stood up.

Use your punching bag, one of his uncles said.

"I did," Ryan said as he walked out into the darkness and toward the water. "I knocked it over."

At the Gulf Shores marina where Kruse reported for work in recent weeks, owner Billy Parks talked about a shrimper who is among those waiting at home for a call from BP offering work.

"Those are the guys I worry about," he said. "It don't seem fair."

Parks stood on a deck above the marina, staring at the gulf. It was a brilliant day, blue skies full of puffy clouds and sun dancing on the emerald waves. The marina was nearly empty. Kruse's two boats were still moored where he left them.

In the distance, six oil rigs rose from the waves, and nearby floated a few barges, supply boats, a fleet of BP Vessels of Opportunity doing boom training, and one lone shrimp trawler, nets extended at its side like outstretched arms.

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