Jon Khachaturian began his career putting offshore oil rigs in place.

Now he pulls them back out

Strong Platform Jack Thompson Before Ivan hit in 2004, hurricanes were
rarely able to knock over any of the thousands of aging oil platforms
in the Gulf of Mexico. A rig can withstand an 80-foot wave. But Ivan
brought 100-foot peaks. So did Katrina and Rita. In the past seven
years, the region's fiercest recorded hurricanes have torn down more
than 200 rigs.

Even as a young engineer designing these platforms in the late 1970s,
Jon Khachaturian saw it coming. The principles of designing them were
fairly simple: Keep the rig broad enough to remain stable and tall
enough to keep waves off the deck, because water on the deck will bend
the platform right over. But, Khachaturian says, the industry standards
for wave resistance were inadequate. "We were designing for what was
considered the 100-year storm. I remember asking, 'How do we know what
a 100-year storm is? They've only been keeping records for 60 years.' "

Khachaturian went from designing rigs to designing ways to move them
around. In 1981, after inventing a way to pick up an entire drilling
platform from a single point using steel beams, he started his first
company, Versabar. He was 26. Now, after 20 years, he holds 50 patents,
employs 700 people in the Gulf region-and has changed his focus once
again. Versabar still specializes in oil-rig installation, but it is
also branching into another line: pulling wrecked oil platforms out
of the ocean and bringing them to shore.

A drilling company cannot simply plug and abandon a derelict rig. The
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management requires such platforms to be
salvaged, and quickly. Any rig in U.S. territorial waters that becomes
inoperable or runs out of oil must be removed within five years. And
the life span of the average rig is no more than 25.

Until Khachaturian got into the business, salvage and removal was not
just expensive, it was dangerous. Divers at depths of up to 500 feet
had to hack the rigs into pieces small enough to be removed using
conventional derricks. A gas pocket ignites, a diver exceeds his
time limit, or a section of the rig falls in an unexpected direction
when it's cut free, and somebody dies. (A massive manta ray once
incapacitated a diver hundreds of feet down.) Those jobs take months.

So Khachaturian built the VB10000, a 25-story arched truss on top
of two 72-by-300-foot barges [see "Monster Crane," page 63]. The
VB10000 can pull out an entire rig in a day, at one fourth the cost
of a traditional salvage job.

In the past year, Khachaturian's monster has removed 30 platforms
and salvaged roughly 70 in pieces. Another 25 sunken rigs are on the
to-do list. And Khachaturian isn't convinced that we've even seen a
100-year storm yet. There are approximately 7,000 rigs operating in
the Gulf of Mexico. They will all be retired eventually-if nature
doesn't get to them first.-Stephen Zacks .