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Fisherman's wife breaks the silence

By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN
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Sick fishermen keep silent
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kindra Arneson believes her husband, other shrimpers were sickened by oil disaster cleanup
  • She hesitated to speak out because BP hired her husband for cleanup
  • One of her immediate goals is to persuade BP to give its workers masks

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Venice, Louisiana (CNN) -- Kindra Arnesen's husband often calls while he's out on a shrimping trip, so she wasn't surprised to hear her cell phone ring the night of April 29 while he was on an overnight fishing expedition.

However, this time, her husband, David, wasn't calling to tell her about the day's catch or to wish their children Aleena and David Jr. a good night. He was calling to tell her he was sick, and the strange thing about it, so were men on the seven other shrimping boats working near his.

"I received several calls from him saying, 'This one's hanging over the boat throwing up. This one says he's dizzy, and he's feeling faint. Everybody's loading up their stuff, tying up their rigs and going back to the docks,'" Arnesen remembers.

Arnesen believes it was vapors from the oil and the dispersants from the BP Gulf oil disaster that made her husband and the other shrimpers sick. She says they were downwind of it, and the smell was "so strong they could almost taste it."

For several weeks, she hesitated to talk publicly about it. Like many fishermen who can no longer fish in the Gulf, her husband has signed a contract to work with BP to clean up the oil, and she doesn't want to bite the hand that puts food on her family's table.

Full coverage: Gulf Coast oil disaster

But now Arnesen, a 32-year-old "uneducated housewife" -- her words -- is breaking her silence and is encouraging others in her community do the same. After attending a lecture by Rikki Ott, a toxicologist who's worked with families affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Arnesen decided to organize other wives to ask questions about the safety of working near the oil.

Her cell phone rings constantly.

"Hey, Theresa, how you doing?" she said, taking a call Tuesday morning. "Can you come to the meeting tonight?"

People don't want to talk. They're scared.
--Kindra Arneson

But Theresa can't come to the meeting, and Arnesen has come to expect such a response.

"People don't want to talk. They're scared," she says, of repercussions and consequences from BP. "Our financial situation lays in the palm of their hands."

"I don't believe in coincidence."

When David Arnesen reported that the other men were so sick they were cutting their shrimping trips short and heading home, his wife knew something strange was happening. Shrimpers work through illness, she says, because a trip cut short can cost a shrimper thousands of dollars.

She says the men had all the same symptoms at the same time -- vomiting, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath. Could it be a coincidence?

"I don't believe in coincidence. It would be one thing if one of them got sick. It would maybe be OK if two got sick," she says. "When everyone's getting sick all at the same time, that's not coincidence"

When asked at a news conference Sunday about people getting sick while out on the Gulf, BP CEO Tony Hayward had his own theory.

"Food poisoning is clearly a big issue," HE said. "It's something we've got to be very mindful of."

Arnesen says there's no way her husband and the men on the other boats had fallen victim to food poisoning, noting the men were on eight boats and didn't eat the same food.

The night her husband became ill, Arnesen says, she tried to get him to come home like the other shrimpers, but he refused. He stayed out fishing from 6 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning, and came home so sick he collapsed into his recliner without eating dinner or saying hello to her or the children.

"It's a nasty cough. I literally woke him up over and over again," she says. "It didn't sound like he was getting enough air.

At first, David refused to see a doctor, but after three weeks of coughing and feeling weak, he agreed to go. His wife says he was diagnosed with respiratory problems and prescribed medicines, including an antibiotic and cough medicines.

She says while he's feeling better, he still doesn't have the energy he used to have.

"Here we are over a month later and he's still not completely well," she says.

Masks and marshes

Since CNN aired a story about her Tuesday night, Kindra Arnesen says she's received phone calls from as far away as Texas from people wanting to team up with her to protect coastal communities from the oil.

One of her immediate goals is to persuade BP to give its workers masks.

Graham MacEwen, a spokesman for BP, says the company isn't providing masks because their air monitoring shows there's no health threats to workers.

He denied Arnesen's accusations that BP has prevented workers from wearing their own masks, saying workers may do so as long as they read training materials on how to use a mask safely.

Arnesen is also working to have BP fund an effort to put sandbags along the marshes in her area to keep the oil out.

(Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Wednesday that the White House has ordered BP to fund Louisiana's plan to dredge up walls of sand along its coast.)

Arnesen says she is indeed scared that her husband will lose his job now that she's speaking out.

"Am I scared? Yes," she said. "Anything that ever starts, starts with one. And if I have to be the one then I have to be the one," she says.

CNN's Trisha Henry and Tristan Smith contributed to this report.

 
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