Family left with only memories

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 2, 2010

Whenever Kaylee Kemp learned her Daddy was returning home from his job on an offshore oil rig, the countdown would commence.

The 3-year-old and her mother, Courtney Kemp, would mark the days until Roy Wyatt Kemp’s homecoming. Together, they’d anticipate his embrace.

That was their tradition.

On April 20, just one day before Wyatt Kemp, 27, was to return home to Jonesville, his oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. He and 10 other men died as a result of the blast.

Wyatt had worked offshore the last four and a half years, and was recently promoted to assistant driller.

Courtney Kemp asked God for guidance. How could she tell Kaylee the countdown was over?

“I told her that Friday or Saturday, I don’t remember which day,” Courtney Kemp said. “She’d asked me before why I’d been crying, but I told her there’d been a bad accident on Daddy’s rig and everything will be OK.

“(Kaylee) asked me to come outside on the porch. She was coloring on the sidewalk and I felt like that was the right time to tell her. I told her there’d been a bad accident on Daddy’s rig. I told her Daddy loves her very much and Daddy loves (3-month-old sister) Maddison very much. I told her Daddy wasn’t going to come home.”

Courtney Kemp’s eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses as she recalled her story, but the glasses couldn’t hide the tears streaming down her face.

“(Kaylee) started crying. I told her Daddy was in heaven with God, and he’d be watching over her, and he’d be living in our hearts forever.”

Courtney Kemp’s mother, Theresa Carpenter, was nearby to console her grieving daughter.

“We’ve got one little girl that’ll remember her Daddy some, and one that will never know him,” Carpenter said, her eyes too filled with tears.

“God is faithful and he doesn’t make mistakes. We know there’s a reason whether we understand it or not.”

On Friday, Wyatt was remembered during a memorial service at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. Planning the service proved difficult for the family. Without a body to bury, the family opted to bury a box filled with memorabilia.

Those who knew Wyatt well were asked to write down their memories of him, and place their notes in a jar “so the girls can have stories for years to come,” Carpenter said.

Courtney Kemp said her husband of five years was fearless. At age 3, he was bitten by a cottonmouth snake and nearly died.

“After that, he wasn’t afraid of anything,” Courtney Kemp said.

Wyatt again kept a brave face when he broke his leg playing softball four months after he and Courtney were married. Bone marrow escaped into his bloodstream, causing a fat embolism, similar to a blood clot, to form in his lungs.

“He almost died again, and he stayed in the ICU for a week,” Courtney Kemp said.

Those hardships taught Wyatt to value each day of his life.

“He was a wonderful husband, my best friend, a great father who loved his girls very much,” Courtney Kemp said. “No one will ever know how much he meant to me.

“He loved hunting and fishing,” Carpenter added. “He took such pride in his hunting dog. He had a chocolate lab named Ellie, and they spent hours and hours together.”

Wyatt was also a man who loved stargazer lilies. One week ago today, Courtney Kemp seized the opportunity to fly over the site where the explosion occurred. Area florists donated dozens of stargazer lilies and other flowers for her to scatter over the water — his final resting place.

For Courtney Kemp, the past 13 days have been surreal. Friends and family have filled the house she and Wyatt built a year and a half ago with flowers and food, and the phone won’t stop ringing.

The Kemps began dating when they were sophomores at Huntington School in Ferriday. Pictures of their life together, from prom to their autumn 2004 wedding, were strewn across the kitchen table.

“I’m still kind of in denial,” Courtney Kemp said. “I keep thinking he’s at work.”

Courtney Kemp finds comfort in the faith she shared with her husband. That undoubting faith, she says, keeps her spirits high.

“He believed in the Lord with all his heart, and it’s comforting to know he’s in heaven with God and I’ll see him again. Now I’m trying to hang in there for my girls.”

Wyatt Kemp was one of two local men who died in the explosion. Karl Dale Kleppinger Jr., 38, of Natchez, is survived by wife Tracy, son Aaron and other family and friends.

Memorial services are set for 2 p.m. Monday at Highland Baptist Church.

Two local men also survived the explosion.

Wyman Wheeler, 39, of Monterey, suffered severe burns and bruises in the blast, his wife Rebecca Wheeler said. Wyman was treated and released from University Medical Center in Jackson April 26.

“He’s doing pretty good. The explosion hit him from behind and his right leg was badly burned,” Rebecca Wheeler said. “There’s lots of physical therapy and occupational therapy ahead. It’ll be a long, long recovery.”

Rebecca Wheeler said nine of the 11 men who died were Wyman’s crew members, and the family plans to attend the memorial services.

The second local survivor, Chad Murray, 34, of the Lake St. John community, was uninjured in the blast. Chad Murray’s sister, Christy Murray, said in a previous interview her brother reportedly helped nine people, including Wyman Wheeler, onto a rescue boat following the blast.

Chad Murray is home safely, but not yet up to telling the stories of his ordeal.