PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. - The smell of oil hangs heavy in the sea air. Children with plastic shovels scoop up clumps of goo in the waves. Beachcombers collect tarballs as if they were seashells.
The BP catastrophe arrived with the tide on the Florida Panhandle's white sands yesterday as the company worked to adjust a cap over the gusher in a desperate and untested bid to arrest what is already the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The widening scope of the slow-motion disaster deepened the anger and despair just as President Obama arrived for his third visit to the stricken Gulf Coast.
The oil has now reached the shores of four Gulf states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida - turning their marshlands into death zones for wildlife and staining their beaches rust and crimson in an affliction that some said brought to mind the plagues and punishments of the Bible.
"In Revelation, it says the water will turn to blood," said P.J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish. "That's what it looks like out here - like the Gulf is bleeding. This is going to choke the life out of everything."
He added: "It makes me want to cry."
Six weeks after the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers, the well has leaked somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil, according to government estimates.
A device resembling an upside-down funnel was lowered over the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea late Thursday to try to capture most of the oil and direct it to a ship on the surface. But crude continued to escape into the Gulf through vents designed to prevent ice crystals from clogging the cap. Engineers hoped to close several vents throughout the day.
"Progress is being made, but we need to caution against overoptimism," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the crisis. Early in the day, he guessed that the cap was collecting 42,000 gallons a day - less than one-tenth of the amount leaking from the well.
One question is whether the cap fit snugly. BP sheared off the well pipe before installing the cap but was unable to make a smooth cut.
As the operation went on at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the effect of the BP spill was increasingly evident.
Swimmers at Pensacola Beach rushed out of the water after wading into the mess, while other beachgoers inspected the clumps with fascination, some taking pictures. Children were seen playing with the globs as if they were Play-Doh.
David Lucas of Jonesville, La., and a group of friends abruptly cut their visit short after wading into oily water. "It was sticky brown globs out there," Lucas said after he and the others cleaned their feet and left.
Health officials said that people should stay away from the mess but that swallowing a little oil-tainted water or getting slimed by a tarball is no reason for alarm.
Randy Ivie, a charter boat captain, broke down in tears as he tried to explain how sad he was to think that his grandchildren might not see the same white beach and turquoise waters he enjoyed.
"It kills me," he said. "I grew up here."