It was the catastrophe that seemed to crush a way of life, an oil rig exploding in the darkness and plunging the gulf coast and its people into months of chaos.
One year after the nation's worst offshore oil spill began, solemn ceremonies will mark the disaster today and underscore the delicate healing that is only now taking shape. Oil still occasionally rolls up on beaches in the form of tar balls, and fishermen face an uncertain future.
But traffic jams on the narrow coastal roads of Alabama, crowded seafood restaurants in Florida and families vacationing along the Louisiana coast attest to the fact that familiar routines are returning, albeit slowly.
"We used to fuss about that," said Ike Williams, referring to the heavy traffic headed for the water in Gulf Shores, Ala., where he rents chairs and umbrellas to beach-goers. "But it was such a welcome sight."
Although life is getting back to normal, many questions linger: Will the fishing industry recover? Will the environment bounce back completely? Will an oil-hungry public ever accept more deep-water drilling?
"It seems like it is all gone," said Tyler Priest, an oil historian at the University of Houston. "People have turned their attention elsewhere. But it will play out like Exxon Valdez did. There will be 20 years of litigation."
On Tuesday, the federal government reopened the last of the waters that were closed last year after the massive spill covering about 1,040 square miles near the sunken rig.
In the months since the April 20, 2010, blast aboard the Deepwater Horizon, an administrator has handed out $3.8 billion from a $20 billion claims fund set up by BP. The number of cleanup workers went from 48,000 at the height of the spill to 2,000 today.
Most scientists agree the effects "were not as severe as many had predicted," said Christopher D'Elia, dean at the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. "People had said this was an ecological Armageddon, and that did not come to pass."
Still, biologists are concerned about the spill's long-term impact on marine life.
"There are these cascading effects," D'Elia said. "It could be accumulation of toxins in the food chain, or changes in the food web. Some species might dominate."
Meanwhile, accumulated oil is believed to lie on the bottom of the gulf, and it still shows up as a thick, gooey black crust along miles of Louisiana's marshy shoreline. Scientists have begun to notice that the land in many places is eroding.
For example, on Cat Island, a patch of land where pelicans and reddish egrets nest among the black mangroves, Associated Press photographs taken a year ago and compared with ones taken recently show visible loss of land and a lack of vegetation.
Confidence in Louisiana's seafood is eroding, too.
"Where I'm fishing it all looks pretty much the same," said Glen Swift, 62, a fisherman in Buras. He is catching catfish and gar in the lower Mississippi River again. That's not the problem.
"I can't sell my fish," he said. "The market's no good."
But the BP spill has faded from the headlines, overtaken by the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, unrest in the Middle East and political clashes in Washington.