Losing 8 friends is hard. Fighting back is harder. Caleb Holloway did both.

A poignant reminder about the hard work skilled workers do.

Caleb Holloway didn’t plan on becoming a rig operator. He just wanted a good paycheck and a steady job.

After a string of odd jobs — working at a feed store, in hospital maintenance, and installing concrete — 22-year-old Caleb and his best friend applied on a whim for a job working on small offshore oil rigs. They were hired two weeks later and stationed on a little shallow-water rig called a "jack-up." It was hard work, but it paid well and Caleb excelled at it. Within two years, he'd switched companies and started working at Transocean on its flagship offshore rig, the Deepwater Horizon.

On this massive rig, Caleb found community with his fellow workers. Stationed together for 21 days at a time, they became a second family to each other.


Offshore drilling rigs similar to the Deepwater Horizon sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Image via Sara Francis/U.S. Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons.

During his three years on the Deepwater Horizon, Caleb worked his way up from an entry-level job as a roustabout, to a member of the drilling crew. It was tough, challenging, skilled work.

Working as anything above an entry-level steward on an oil rig usually requires a diploma in welding, basic mechanics, or heavy equipment operations, plus specialized courses in marine firefighting and emergency response. Workers must be physically strong, highly-skilled natural problem-solvers — able to do their tough, essential jobs perfectly on a moving, floating deep-sea drilling platform in all kinds of bad weather and treacherous conditions.

"It’s a very dangerous job," Caleb said. "Everything on the rig is heavy; you’ve got multiple machines running and going in different directions. It’s a long job, and it can get to you sometimes. But I always think back to our crew and how we took care of each other. There wasn't a moment where I didn't trust them with my life."

Most of the time, there are extensive safety protocols in place to keep workers out of harm's way. Coupled with strong leaders empowering workers to speak up about problems, sometimes they make a big difference. Other times, they fail horribly.

On the morning of April 20, 2010, 10 members of the Deepwater Horizon’s drilling crew went to work. By midafternoon, only two of them were still alive. Caleb was one of them.

The Deepwater Horizon burns on August 20, 2010. Image via U.S. Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons.

That day, the Deepwater Horizon was finishing up work on the deepest oil well ever drilled on our planet. The project was behind schedule and over budget. A chain of decisions, spurred largely by off-site executives wanting to save further money and time, led to a catastrophic explosion, a massive fire, and the largest oil spill in American history. Caleb and his colleague, Dan Barron, crawled through pitch darkness and aerosolized gas and fire to reach safety. On their way, they helped many others reach safety.

126 people were on board Deepwater Horizon before it sank. 115 were rescued.  Of the 11 crew members who were not, eight were members of Caleb Holloway's drilling crew. It was only after he was safely back on shore that he began to understand that many of his close friends and coworkers weren't with him.

For six months afterward, Caleb could barely function.  

Medications and counseling helped, but only bit by bit. Unable to eat or sleep, he lost 40 pounds off his already slim frame. He couldn't stop replaying the day over and over again in his head, imagining what he could have done differently and the additional lives he might have saved.

Until one day, he just couldn’t do that anymore.

Through the support of his family, his friends, and his bible study group, Caleb found the motivation to begin living again. Just over a year after the disaster, he signed up for firefighter training.

"Losing my friends on Deepwater Horizon felt like someone tore out my heart and ripped it into 11 pieces," he says, his voice catching. "There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of them. I wanted to go back to a rig because I loved that work, but I knew that mentally and emotionally I couldn’t do it."

For the last four years, Caleb's worked as a firefighter on the crew in Nacogdoches, Texas — just 20 minutes from where he grew up and minutes from his parent's house.

His shifts, like the ones he worked on the Deepwater Horizon, are long and tough: 24 hours on with 48 hours off. Caleb couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

He spends a full third of his life now in this fire hall, surrounded by men and women who, like his crew members back on the Deepwater Horizon, have become another second family. "We do something different every day, we impact lives every day," he says. "It’s something I’m proud of."

The Holloway family at home. Image via Participant/Deepwater Horizon.

For Caleb, being a firefighter bridges the gap with the work he did on the rigs, in a way, and the close relationships he had with his fellow workers, while allowing him to stay close to his growing family. That's something his wife Kristin and sons, Chase, age 4, and Hayden, 20 months, really appreciate. "They're the best thing that’s ever happened to me," Caleb says proudly. "They’re my heartbeats; they keep me going every day."

Caleb's experience is unique, heartbreaking, and life-affirming. But people like him put their lives on the line for their job every single day.

Image via Participant/Deepwater Horizon.

Mundane moments in our lives that we take for granted — that light comes on when we flick switches, that roads are safe to drive on, that toilets flush away dirty water and taps supply clean — occur because of skilled workers, some of whom risk their lives in potentially deadly situations just to make it happen. They're working quietly, doing the essential work that keeps our country running every day. While their work is often taken for granted, it's actually pretty incredible, too.

Watch a video of Caleb's story here:

This is Caleb Holloway. He survived the Deepwater Horizon and is now a firefighter in Texas. #workhard Participant Media

Posted by Mark Wahlberg on Friday, October 7, 2016
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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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