A suicide reminds Gulf coast of mental toll from BP oil spill

Miami HeraldJune 28, 2010 

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — The marina at Zeke's Landing is now hallowed waters, a somber place shaken by the death of an experienced boat captain everyone called "Rookie.''

His namesake, a yellow 50-footer, is still parked at station B-3, with three wreaths and a bouquet of dandelions on its deck. Friends laid them in honor of Allen "Rookie'' Kruse, the 55-year-old charter fisherman who lost his livelihood, then took his life.

His death last week, the first known suicide related to the spill, gave this 11-mile hideaway the kind of attention it never wanted. It has become Exhibit A for a problem that experts fear is moving faster than the oil slick: a mental toll that will lead to violence, depression and suicide.

Throughout the tar-stained Gulf, elected leaders are choking up at meetings and residents are losing sleep over whether the next sunrise will bring more tarballs.

The mayor of Bayou La Batre, Ala., has reported that calls of domestic violence there have tripled. In Chauvin, La., a man sits catatonic in front of CNN, while his friend planted a sign saying "Our Way of Life: It's Oil Gone.''

"I don't know what we can do,'' said Mark Jones, Sr., an out-of-work shrimper. "Our heritage is being washed away.''

The events are reminiscent of what happened in communities along the Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said J. Steven Picou, an environmental sociologist who researches the lingering psychological effects of disasters.

During Exxon Valdez, the nearby city of Cordova saw increases in divorces and suicides. Fisherman suffered from bouts of depression or anxiety. The first suicide, Picou said, came four years after that spill.

In the Gulf, it has taken a little more than two months.

This is the psychological response to a "technological disaster,'' Picou said. It's different from the response to acts of God — natural disasters that evoke united calls to rebuild. Those come with the knowledge that every storm will, one day, blow over.

But technological disasters can divide communities as they wonder who to blame. With an oil spill, Picou say, residents see an accident with no end in sight -- an amorphous blob that endangers the uniqueness of their communities.

"Something that people thought was practically impossible has happened,'' said Picou, a professor at the University of South Alabama. "There will be severe and long-lasting impacts and this will probably not be the last suicide.''

Picou lives in the city where Kruse shot himself, one of the many beach towns along the Gulf with a population that typically swells with tourists during the summer.

The shorelines here are lined with resorts, high-rises and townhomes the color of Easter eggs. From the west, visitors see a Ferris Wheel billed as the largest in the Southeast.

Nowadays, those resorts are half-empty. All one has to do is peek out of the gondola at the top of the 117-foot Ferris Wheel to see why:

Sheens of oil in the distance.

Orange boom floating on emerald waters.

Plastic bags of toxic waste stacked on the beach like menacing sand castles.

Last summer, easily 1,000 people a day roamed popular Zeke's Landing, perhaps listening to a musician strumming a guitar of playing saxophone.

Last weekend, just a handful strolled along the wooden planks. An overhead radio played Bon Jovi's "Livin' On a Prayer.''

Charter fishermen typically would take out groups of 30 on expeditions. Now, the only way to make money is join up with BP's Vessels of Opportunity program where they search for oil. They return with the bottom of their boats coated in crude.

"But the thing is, no one chooses this lifestyle for the money,'' said dockmaster Thad Stewart. "There's a relationship between people and the water down here that makes all this hard to swallow. They move here to see a pack of dolphins go through in the morning, and pelicans and osprey dive. It's food for our soul, and it's all being threatened.''

More than 20 years ago, Allen "Rookie'' Kruse decided he'd rather be fishing than continue his day job as a UPS supervisor in a nearby county. Friends describe him as patient, persistent and very precise.

His boat was always the cleanest, and his crewmates marveled at his organization. Clients loved his easy-going attitude. Every summer, they'd come back to him.

After hurricanes and a sagging economy, he and the other charter captains were anticipating the best summer in years.

Then the oil spilled out and the phone stopped ringing.

His wife Tracy, who sells seafood in nearby Foley, saw her business plummet.

Rookie thought BP's oil search program would be his buoy. But his hope soon turned to frustration.

The consummate professional, Rookie felt disheartened by the mandatory training sessions for skills he already had, the lack of organization.

After hours of searching for oil, he'd return in a daze.

"The first day he came back, I said, 'Hey Rookie, what'd you think?,' '' said Courtney Williams, his Web designer. "He said his mind was so messed up he couldn't even think.''

Over the next two weeks, the joking Kruse became more reserved. He lost about 30 pounds. And last Wednesday, while his crew readied themselves for a day's work, he went into the wheelhouse, took out a gun he kept for protection and put a bullet through his head.

The crew were saddened, but not totally surprised.

"Everybody said something had changed in him, he had been really quiet and down,'' recalled Stewart, the dockmaster. "And I thought about why I didn't notice it. I started looking around, then it hit me: Everybody's been like that. Everyone's down.''

BP has sent grief counselors to the area.

Picou, the sociologist, has begun distributing a handbook called "Coping with Technological Disasters'' to help independent business owners and the community understand what might lie ahead.

But it's a hard group to penetrate. They are a self-reliant, independent bunch who have made their lot in life through hard work, not talking openly about their feelings.

"The only way we can help people is through outreach,'' Picou said.

In private, the captains talk about shorter tempers and more drinking on the docks. If they had a bad day, they would calm themselves by going out and catching some snapper to toss on the grill.

Now they can't fish. They can only hope that capturing oil from the Gulf while working for BP will restore their old vocations.

"Rookie'' was honored Sunday in a private service. His identical twin, Frank, said he hoped his brother's death will encourage others along the beach to seek mental health treatment.

In the coming days, Frank Kruse said he would fulfill his brother's wish.

"He wanted his ashes to be spread in his favorite spots along the water,'' Frank recalled. "There was this one spot where he trained dolphins. Wild dolphins. He would go over and they'd come out so he could feed them.''

But Frank isn't sure when he'll be able to head to that special spot. That depends on which way the wind blows and the oil goes.

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