Allen Kruse had been a charter fishing boat captain for more than two decades -- long enough that people called him by his boat's name, Rookie, as if they were one and the same. But then, two months ago, the leaking BP oil well began pouring crude into the waters where he took families fishing for snapper and amberjack.
Two weeks and two days ago, with his fishing grounds closed, Kruse, 55, took a job working for BP's cleanup crew. Other boat captains said Kruse, like them, found the effort confusing, overly bureaucratic and frustrating. He told them to keep their heads down, not to worry about the hassles. But those close to him saw he was losing weight.
Wednesday morning, Kruse drove to his boat as usual. As the deckhands prepared for the day's work, Kruse, as the captain, was supposed to turn on the generator. But after a few minutes, the crew members said, they didn't hear anything and went looking for him. A deckhand found him in the wheelhouse, shot in the head.
The Baldwin County, Ala., Coroner's Office called his death an apparent suicide and said Kruse didn't leave a note. No one can be sure why he would have taken his life. But his friends see the tragedy as a clear sign of the BP spill's hidden psychological toll on the Gulf Coast, an awful feeling of helplessness that descends on people used to hard work and independence.
"We're helping cover up the lie. We're burying ourselves. We're helping them cover up the [expletive] that's putting us out of work," said a 27-year-old deckhand who was working for Kruse on Wednesday and spoke on condition of anonymity. He said Kruse was facing the same problems as others in his business: "It's just setting in with 'em, you know; reality's kicking in. And there's a lot of people that aren't as happy as they used to be."
Around the gulf, social service providers are dealing with a rising tide of mental health crises. Groups of Baptists are deploying extra chaplains in parishes along the coast. In southern Louisiana, where the impact was felt first, about 1,500 people have received counseling services from Catholic Charities.
From past disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, health experts say they expect a wave of physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. But they also expect more-subtle problems, as people absorb the spill's impact on their lives: depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic issues.
"We're seeing already an increase in suspiciousness, arguing, domestic violence. We're already having reports of increased drinking, anxiety, anger and avoidance," Howard Osofsky, of the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, said during a two-day hearing this week on the physical and emotional impact of the spill.
Michele Many, a social worker who helps fishermen's wives, said the stress of the spill is compounded by its uncertainty. Oil still is pouring out, spreading with an unmanageable toxicity that evokes comparisons to disease.
"The oil spill is like a cancer or tumor," said Many, who works at Louisiana State University. "It is creeping and unpredictable from whether people will have livelihoods or health issues later from helping clean it up. You just don't know whether it is benign or malignant."
In Lafitte, La., 200 hundred miles from the marina where Kruse died, Claudia Helmer heard about the suicide Wednesday afternoon.
"Oh, Lord," she said. "That is really, really sad."
And she immediately began to fret about Gerry, her fisherman husband, and their 19-year-old son, who were spending five days on the gulf, helping clean up oil.
"I do worry that my husband isn't one to show what he's feeling," she said. "He doesn't want me to worry, but I do. I think he's going to keep it all bundled up."
She sees the stress in those around her. "I was with a next-door neighbor [Tuesday], and he's a 42-year-old fisherman, and he just broke down crying," she said. "It was a shock to see him so upset. He's afraid we're not going to have anything left. We all are."
Tony Speier, assistant deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Mental Health, noted that "people don't know how long this is going to be," which makes the oil spill harder to deal with than a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.
"They can't put a psychological boundary on it and start their recovery because this is ongoing," he said.
In Kruse's world, a lot of people were down. There were fights with wives, troubles over money and impending bills. Charter fishermen say they were glad they could make some money working for BP. But they were annoyed by the paperwork, the inane training in avoiding sunburns and wearing tennis shoes instead of flip-flops, the runaround when somebody had a question.
Other fishermen, who looked up to Kruse, turned to him for advice.
"His quote to me was, 'Don't try to rationalize it. Just sign your name and get on your boat, and don't try to tell anybody how to run the program, and don't try to tell 'em what the local knowledge is,' " Chris Garner said Wednesday. "I said, 'Rookie, that sounds an awful lot like prison.' He said, 'That's a pretty good analysis, Chris. It's just like prison.' And he didn't make it another week."