Deepwater Horizon Rig
This report is dedicated to the 11 men who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, 2010 and to their families, in hope that this report will help minimize the chance of another such disaster ever happening again. Jason Anderson Aaron Dale Burkeen Donald Clark Stephen Curtis Gordon Jones Roy Wyatt Kemp Karl Dale Kleppinger, Jr. Blair Manuel Dewey Revette Shane Roshto Adam Weise ii Acknowledgements We wish to acknowledge the many individuals and organizations, government officials and agencies alike that offered their views and insights to the Commission.
We would especially like to express our gratitude to the Coast Guard’s Incident Specific Preparedness Review (ISPR) for allowing Commission staff to participate in its interviews and discussions, which was invaluable to the preparation of this report. (A copy of the Coast Guard’s ISPR report can be found at the Commission’s website at www. oilspillcommission. gov). We would also like to thank Chevron for performing the cement tests that proved so critical to our investigation into the Macondo well blowout.
We also thank the Department of Energy, which served as our supporting agency, and all of the Department employees whose assistance was so essential to the success and functioning of the Commission. In particular, we would like to thank Christopher Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oil and Natural Gas, who acted as the Commission’s Designated Federal Officer, as well as Elena Melchert, Petroleum Engineer in the Office of Oil and Gas Resource Conservation, who served as the Committee Manager. But most importantly, we are deeply grateful to the citizens of the Gulf who shared their personal xperiences as Commissioners traveled in the region, providing a critical human dimension to the disaster and to our undertaking, as well as the many people who testified at the Commission’s hearings, provided public comments, and submitted statements to our website. Together, these contributions greatly informed our work and led to a better report. Thank you one and all.
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The explosion that tore through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig last April 20, as the rig’s crew completed drilling the exploratory Macondo well deep under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, began a human, economic, and environmental disaster. Eleven crew members died, and others were seriously injured, as fire engulfed and ultimately destroyed the rig. And, although the nation would not know the full scope of the disaster for weeks, the first of more than four million barrels of oil began gushing uncontrolled into the Gulf—threatening livelihoods, precious habitats, and even a unique way of life.
A treasured American landscape, already battered and degraded from years of mismanagement, faced yet another blow as the oil spread and washed ashore. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the nation was again transfixed, seemingly helpless, as this new tragedy unfolded in the Gulf. The costs from this one industrial accident are not yet fully counted, but it is already clear that the impacts on the region’s natural systems and people were enormous, and that economic losses total tens of billions of dollars.
On May 22, 2010, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling: an independent, nonpartisan entity, directed to provide a thorough analysis and impartial judgment. The President charged the Commission to determine the causes of the disaster, and to improve the country’s ability to respond to spills, and to recommend reforms to make offshore energy production safer. And the President said we were to follow the facts wherever they led. This report is the result of an intense six-month effort to fulfill the President’s charge.
Foreword vii vii From the outset, the Commissioners have been determined to learn the essential lessons so expensively revealed in the tragic loss of life at the Deepwater Horizon and the severe damages that ensued. The Commission’s aim has been to provide the President, policymakers, industry, and the American people a clear, accessible, accurate, and fair account of the largest oil spill in U. S history: the context for the well itself, how the explosion and spill happened, and how industry and government scrambled to respond to an unprecedented emergency.
This was our first obligation: determine what happened, why it happened, and explain it to Americans everywhere. As a result of our investigation, we conclude: • • The explosive loss of the Macondo well could have been prevented. The immediate causes of the Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such , systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry. Deepwater energy exploration and production, particularly at the frontiers of experience, involve risks for which neither industry nor overnment has been adequately prepared, but for which they can and must be prepared in the future. To assure human safety and environmental protection, regulatory oversight of leasing, energy exploration, and production require reforms even beyond those significant reforms already initiated since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Fundamental reform will be needed in both the structure of those in charge of regulatory oversight and their internal decisionmaking process to ensure their political autonomy, technical expertise, and their full consideration of environmental protection concerns.
Because regulatory oversight alone will not be sufficient to ensure adequate safety, the oil and gas industry will need to take its own, unilateral steps to increase dramatically safety throughout the industry, including self-policing mechanisms that supplement governmental enforcement. The technology, laws and regulations, and practices for containing, responding to, and cleaning up spills lag behind the real risks associated with deepwater drilling into large, high-pressure reservoirs of oil and gas located far offshore and thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface.
Government must close the existing gap and industry must support rather than resist that effort. Scientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive environments in deep Gulf waters, along the region’s coastal habitats, and in areas proposed for more drilling, such as the Arctic, is inadequate. The same is true of the human and natural impacts of oil spills. • • • • • viii We reach these conclusions, and make necessary recommendations, in a constructive spirit: we aim to promote changes that will make American offshore energy exploration and production far safer, today and in the future.
More broadly, the disaster in the Gulf undermined public faith in the energy industry, government regulators, and even our own capability as a nation to respond to crises. It is our hope that a thorough and rigorous accounting, along with focused suggestions for reform, can begin the process of restoring confidence. There is much at stake, not only for the people directly affected in the Gulf region, but for the American people at large. The tremendous resources that exist within our outer continental shelf belong to the nation as a whole.
The federal government’s authority over the shelf is accordingly plenary, based on its power as both the owner of the resources and in its regulatory capacity as sovereign to protect public health, safety, and welfare. To be allowed to drill on the outer continental shelf is a privilege to be earned, not a private right to be exercised. “Complex Systems Almost Always Fail in Complex Ways” As the Board that investigated the loss of the Columbia space shuttle noted, “complex systems almost always fail in complex ways. Though it is tempting to single out one crucial misstep or point the finger at one bad actor as the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, any such explanation provides a dangerously incomplete picture of what happened—encouraging the very kind of complacency that led to the accident in the first place. Consistent with the President’s request, this report takes an expansive view. Why was a corporation drilling for oil in mile-deep water 49 miles off the Louisiana coast? To begin, Americans today consume vast amounts of petroleum products—some 18. 7 million barrels per day—to fuel our economy.
Unlike many other oil-producing countries, the United States relies on private industry—not a state-owned or -controlled enterprise—to supply oil, natural gas, and indeed all of our energy resources. This basic trait of our private-enterprise system has major implications for how the U. S. government oversees and regulates offshore drilling. It also has advantages in fostering a vigorous and competitive industry, which has led worldwide in advancing the technology of finding and extracting oil and gas. Even as land-based oil production extended as far as the northern Alaska frontier, the oil and gas industry began to move offshore.
The industry first moved into shallow water and eventually into deepwater, where technological advances have opened up vast new reserves of oil and gas in remote areas—in recent decades, much deeper under the water’s surface and farther offshore than ever before. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling the Macondo well under 5,000 feet of Gulf water, and then over 13,000 feet under the sea floor to the hydrocarbon reservoir below. It is a complex, even dazzling, enterprise. The remarkable advances that have propelled the move to deepwater drilling merit comparison with exploring outer space.
The Commission is respectful and admiring of the industry’s technological capability. ix ix But drilling in deepwater brings new risks, not yet completely addressed by the reviews of where it is safe to drill, what could go wrong, and how to respond if something does go awry. The drilling rigs themselves bristle with potentially dangerous machinery. The deepwater environment is cold, dark, distant, and under high pressures—and the oil and gas reservoirs, when found, exist at even higher pressures (thousands of pounds per square inch), compounding the risks if a well gets out of control.
The Deepwater Horizon and Macondo well vividly illustrated all of those very real risks. When a failure happens at such depths, regaining control is a formidable engineering challenge—and the costs of failure, we now know, can be catastrophically high. In the years before the Macondo blowout, neither industry nor government adequately addressed these risks. Investments in safety, containment, and response equipment and practices failed to keep pace with the rapid move into deepwater drilling.
Absent major crises, and given the remarkable financial returns available from deepwater reserves, the business culture succumbed to a false sense of security. The Deepwater Horizon disaster exhibits the costs of a culture of complacency. The Commission examined in great detail what went wrong on the rig itself. Our investigative staff uncovered a wealth of specific information that greatly enhances our understanding of the factors that led to the explosion. The separately published report of the chief counsel (a summary of the findings is presented in Chapter 4) offers the fullest account yet of what happened on the rig and why.
There are recurring themes of missed warning signals, failure to share information, and a general lack of appreciation for the risks involved. In the view of the Commission, these findings highlight the importance of organizational culture and a consistent commitment to safety by industry, from the highest management levels on down.
But that complacency affected government as well as industry. The Commission has documented the weaknesses and the inadequacies of the federal regulation and oversight, and made important recommendations for changes in legal authority, regulations, investments in expertise, and management.
The Commission also looked at the effectiveness of the response to the spill. There were remarkable instances of dedication and heroism by individuals involved in the rescue and cleanup. Much was done well—and thanks to a combination of good luck and hard work, the worst-case scenarios did not all come to pass. But it is impossible to argue that the industry or the country was prepared for a disaster of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the same blunt response technologies—booms, dispersants, and skimmers—were used, to limited effect.
On-the-ground shortcomings in the joint public-private response to an overwhelming spill like that resulting from the blowout of the Macondo well are now evident, and demand public and private investment. So do the weaknesses in local, state, and federal coordination revealed by the emergency. Both government and industry failed to anticipate and prevent this catastrophe, and failed again to be prepared to respond to it.
The chief counsel’s investigation was no doubt complicated by the lack of subpoena power. Nonetheless, Chief Counsel Bartlit did an extraordinary job building the record and interpreting what he learned.
He used his considerable powers of persuasion along with other tools at his disposal to engage the involved companies in constructive and informative exchanges. If we are to make future deepwater drilling safer and more environmentally responsible, we will need to address all these deficiencies together; a piecemeal approach will surely leave us vulnerable to future crises in the communities and natural environments most exposed to offshore energy exploration and production. The Deepwater Drilling Prospect The damage from the spill and the impact on the people of the Gulf has guided our work from the very beginning.
Our first action as a Commission was to visit the Gulf region, to learn directly from those most affected. We heard deeply moving accounts from oystermen witnessing multi-generation family businesses slipping away, fishermen and tourism proprietors bearing the brunt of an ill-founded stigma affecting everything related to the Gulf, and oil-rig workers dealing with mounting bills and threatened home foreclosures, their means of support temporarily derailed by a blanket drilling moratorium, shutting down all deepwater drilling rigs, including those not implicated in the BP spill.
Indeed, the centrality of oil and gas exploration to the Gulf economy is not widely appreciated by many Americans, who enjoy the benefits of the energy essential to their transportation, but bear none of the direct risks of its production. Within the Gulf region, however, the role of the energy industry is well understood and accepted. The notion of clashing interests—of energy extraction versus a natural-resource economy with bountiful fisheries and tourist amenities—misses the extent to which the energy industry is woven into the fabric of the Gulf culture and economy, providing thousands of jobs and essential public revenues.
Any discussion of the future of offshore drilling cannot ignore these economic realities. But those benefits have imposed their costs. The bayous and wetlands of Louisiana have for decades suffered from destructive alteration to accommodate oil exploration. The Gulf ecosystem, a unique American asset, is likely to continue silently washing away unless decisive action is taken to start the work of creating a sustainably healthy and productive landscape. No one should be deluded that restoration on the scale required will occur quickly or cheaply.
Indeed, the experience in restoring other large, sensitive regions—the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades, the Great Lakes—indicates that progress will require coordinated federal and state actions, a dedicated funding source, long-term monitoring, and a vocal and engaged citizenry, supported by robust non-governmental groups, scientific research, and more. We advocate beginning such an effort, seriously and soon, as a suitable response to the damage and disruption caused by the Deepwater Horizon emergency.
It is a fair recognition not only of the costs that energy exploitation in the Gulf has, for decades, imposed on the landscape and habitats—and the other economic activities they support—but also of the certainty that Americans will continue to develop the region’s offshore energy resources. For the simple fact is that the bulk of our newly discovered petroleum reserves, and the best prospects for future discoveries, lie not on land, but under water. To date, we have xi xi made the decision as a nation to exploit the Gulf ’s offshore energy resources—ruling much of the Florida, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts out of bounds for drilling.
The choice of how aggressively to exploit these resources, wherever they may be found, has profound implications for the future of U. S. energy policy, for our need to understand and assure the integrity of fragile environmental resources, and for the way Americans think about our economy and our security. Although much work is being done to improve the fuelefficiency of vehicles and to develop alternative fuels, we cannot realistically walk away from these offshore oil resources in the near future. So we must be much better prepared to exploit such resources with far greater care. The Commission and Its Work
While we took a broad view of the spill, it could not be exhaustive. There is still much we do not know—for instance, the blowout preventer, the last line of defense against loss of well control, is still being analyzed; and the Deepwater Horizon itself, after its explosive destruction, remained out of reach during our investigation. The understandable, immediate need to provide answers and concrete suggestions trumped the benefits of a longer, more comprehensive investigation. And as we know from other spills, their environmental consequences play out over decades—and often in unexpected ways.
Instead, the Commission focused on areas we thought most likely to inform practical recommendations. Those recommendations are presented in the spirit of transforming America into the global leader for safe and effective offshore drilling operations. Just as this Commission learned from the experiences of other nations in developing our recommendations, the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster are not confined to our own government and industry, but relevant to rest of the world. We wish we could say that our recommendations make a recurrence of a disaster like the Macondo blowout impossible. We do not have that power.
No one can eliminate all risks associated with deepwater exploration. But when exploration occurs, particularly in sensitive environments like the Gulf of Mexico or the Arctic, the country has an obligation to make responsible decisions regarding the benefits and risks. The report is divided into three sections. Chapters 1 through 3 describe the events of April 20th on the Deepwater Horizon, and, more important, the events leading up to it in the preceding decades—especially how the dramatic expansion of deepwater drilling in the Gulf was not met by regulatory oversight capable of ensuring the safety of those drilling operations.
We recognize that the improvements we advocate all come with costs and all will take time to implement. But inaction, as we are deeply aware, runs the risk of real costs, too: in more lost lives, in broad damage to the regional economy and its long-term viability, and in further tens of billions of dollars of avoidable clean-up costs. Indeed, if the clear challenges are not addressed and another disaster happens, the entire offshore energy enterprise is threatened—and with it, the nation’s economy and security.
We suggest a better option: build from this tragedy in a way that makes the Gulf more resilient, the country’s energy supplies more secure, our workers safer, and our cherished natural resources better protected. Our Thanks and Dedication We thank President Obama for this opportunity to learn thoroughly about the crisis, and to share our findings with the American public. We deeply appreciate the effort people in the affected Gulf regions made to tell us about their experiences, and the time and preparation witnesses before the Commission dedicated to their presentations.
We have come to respect the seriousness with which our fellow Commissioners assumed our joint responsibilities, and their diverse expertise and perspectives that helped make its work thorough and productive. On their behalf, we wish to recognize the extraordinary work the Commission’s staff—scientists, lawyers, engineers, policy analysts, and more— performed, under demanding deadlines, to make our inquiries broad, deep, and effective; and we especially highlight the leadership contributions of Richard Lazarus, executive director, and Fred Bartlit, chief counsel.
Together, they have fulfilled an extraordinary public service. Finally, to the American people, we reiterate that extracting the energy resources to fuel our cars, heat and light our homes, and power our businesses can be a dangerous enterprise. Our national reliance on fossil fuels is likely to continue for some time—and all of us reap benefits from the risks taken by the men and women working in energy exploration. We owe it to them to ensure that their working environment is as safe as possible. We dedicate this effort to the 11 of our fellow citizens who lost their lives in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Bob Graham, Co-Chair William K. Reilly, Co-Chair xiii xiii xiii Part I The Path to Tragedy On April 20, 2010, the 126 workers on the BP Deepwater Horizon were going about the routines of completing an exploratory oil well—unaware of impending disaster. What unfolded would have unknown impacts shaped by the Gulf region’s distinctive cultures, institutions, and geography—and by economic forces resulting from the unique coexistence of energy resources, bountiful fisheries and wildlife, and coastal tourism.
The oil and gas industry, long lured by Gulf reserves and public incentives, progressively developed and deployed new technologies, at ever-larger scales, in pursuit of valuable energy supplies in increasingly deeper waters farther from the coastline. Regulators, however, failed to keep pace with the industrial expansion and new technology—often because of industry’s resistance to more effective oversight. The result was a serious, and ultimately inexcusable, shortfall in supervision of offshore drilling that played out in the Macondo well blowout and the catastrophic oil spill that followed.
The rig’s industrial hum and loud mechanical noises punctuated the sea air as a slight breeze blew in off the water. The crew worked on Pride of the Transocean fleet of offshore drilling rigs, Deepwater Horizon rides calmly on station 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. The $560-million-dollar rig, under lease to BP was putting the finishing touches on the oil company’s , 18,000-foot-deep Macondo well when it blew out and escaping methane gas exploded. Eleven workers died in the inferno. According to the government’s estimates, by the time the well was sealed months later, over 4 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf. lt; Photo courtesy of Transocean 2 National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling the well bore, aiming always to keep the pressure inside the well balancing the force exerted by the surrounding seabed. 2 By the time the Halliburton engineer had arrived at the rig four days earlier to help cement in the two-and-a-half-mile-deep Macondo well, some crew members had dubbed it “the well from hell. ”3 Macondo was not the first well to earn that nickname;4 like many deepwater wells, it had proved complicated and challenging.
About 126 people were aboard: approximately 80 Transocean employees, a few BP men, cafeteria and laundry workers, and a changing group of workers contracted for specialized jobs. Depending on the status of the well, these might include Halliburton cementers, mud loggers from Sperry Sun (a Halliburton subsidiary), mud engineers from M-I SWACO (a subsidiary of Schlumberger, an international oilfield services provider), remotely operated vehicle technicians from Oceaneering, or tank cleaners and technicians from the OCS Group. The offices and living quarters were on the two bottom decks of the rig.
Helicopters flew in and out regularly with workers and supplies, landing on the top-deck helipad, and service ships made regular visits. At its new Macondo assignment, Deepwater Horizon floated in 4,992 feet of water just beyond the gentle slope of the continental shelf in the Mississippi Canyon. 15 The seabed far below was near-freezing, visible to the crew only via cameras mounted on the rig’s subsea remotely operated vehicle. Another two and a half miles below the seabed was the prize BP sought: a large reservoir of oil and gas from the Middle Miocene era trapped in a porous rock formation at temperatures exceeding 200 degrees. 6 These deepwater hydrocarbon fields, buried far below the seabed—not just in the Gulf, but in other oil-rich zones around the world, too—were the brave new oil frontier. The size of some deepwater fields was so huge that the oil industry had nicknamed those with a billion barrels or more “elephants. ”17 Drilling for oil had always been hard, dirty, dangerous work, combining heavy machinery and volatile hydrocarbons extracted at high pressures. Since 2001, the Gulf of Mexico workforce—35,000 people, working on 90 big drilling rigs and 3,500 production platforms—had suffered 1,550 injuries, 60 deaths, and 948 fires and explosions. 8 The rig never slept. Most workers on Deepwater Horizon, from BP’s top “company man” down to the roustabouts, put in a 12-hour night or day shift, working three straight weeks on and then having three weeks off. Rig workers made good money for the dangerous work and long stints away from home and family. Top rig and management jobs paid well into six figures. On the morning of April 20, Robert Kaluza was BP’s day-shift company man on the Deepwater Horizon. On board for the first time, he was serving for four days as a relief man for Ronald Sepulvado, a veteran well-site leader on the rig.
Sepulvado had flown back to shore April 16 for a required well-control class. 19 During the rig’s daily 7:30 a. m. operations conference call to BP in Houston, engineer Morel discussed the good news that the final cement job at the bottom of the Macondo well had gone fine. 20 To ensure the job did not have problems, a three-man Schlumberger team was scheduled to fly out to the rig later that day, able to perform a suite of tests to examine the well’s new bottom cement seal. 21 4 National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling
Harrell was the top Transocean man on the rig when—as now—the well was “latched up. ” Captain Kuchta, who had served on the Deepwater Horizon since June 2008, was in command when the vessel was “unlatched” and thus once again a maritime vessel. 28 The helicopter landed, the doors opened, and four Houston executives stepped out to begin their 24-hour “management visibility tour. ”29 Harrell and Kuchta greeted the VIPs. 30 Two were from Transocean: Buddy Trahan, vice president and operations manager for assets, and Daun Winslow, a one-time assistant driller who had worked his way up to operations manager.
BP’s representatives were David Sims, the new drilling operations manager (he had sent the congratulatory e-mail about the cement just that morning), and Pat O’Bryan, vice-president for drilling and completions, Gulf of Mexico Deepwater. 31 At about 4:00 p. m. , Harrell began his escorted tour of the Deepwater Horizon for the VIPs. 32 He was joined by Chief Engineer Steve Bertone, on board since 2003, and senior toolpusher Randy Ezell, another top man on the rig. 33 Like Harrell, Ezell was an offshore veteran. He had worked for 23 years with Transocean34 and was now the senior man in charge of the drilling floor.
And I believe it was one of the top performing rigs in all the BP floater fleets from the standpoint of safety and drilling performance. ” O’Bryan, at his new job just four months, was on board in part to learn what made the rig such a stand-out. 50 Despite all the crew’s troubles with this latest well,51 they had not had a single “lost-time incident” in seven years of drilling. 52 The Transocean managers discussed with their BP counterparts the backlog of rig maintenance. A September 2009 BP safety audit had produced a 30-page list of 390 items requiring 3,545 man-hours of work. 3 The managers reviewed upcoming maintenance schedules and discussed efforts to reduce dropped objects and personal injuries: on a rig with cranes, multiple decks, and complicated heavy machinery, errant objects could be deadly. 54 Around 9:00 p. m. , Transocean’s Winslow proposed they all go visit the bridge, which had not been part of their earlier tour. According to David Sims, the bridge was “kind of an impressive place if you hadn’t been there…[l]ots of screens…lots of technology. ”55 The four * The precise content of this particular conversation is disputed and is considered more fully in Chapter 4.
By the time he got outside, “[t]here was mud and seawater blowing everywhere, there was a mud film on the deck. I decided not to continue and came back across. ”74 * * * * Down in Ezell’s cabin, he was still watching TV when his phone rang. It was assistant driller Steve Curtis calling, also from the rig floor. “We have a situation. …The well is blown out. . . . We have mud going to the crown. ” Ezell was horrified. “Do y’all have it shut in? ”75 Curtis: “Jason is shutting it in now. . . Randy, we need your help. ” Ezell: “Steve, I’ll be—I’ll be right there. 76 He put on his coveralls, pulled his socks on, and opened the door to go across the hall to his office for his boots and hard hat. Once in the hall, “a tremendous explosion… blew me probably 20 feet against a bulkhead, against the wall in that office. And I remember then that the lights went out, power went out. I could hear everything deathly calm. ”77 * * * * Chapter One 9 9 Up on the main deck, gantry crane operator Micah Sandell was working with the roustabouts. “I seen mud shooting all the way up to the derrick. . . . Then it just quit. . . I took a deep breath thinking that ‘Oh, they got it under control. Then all the sudden the. . . mud started coming out of the degasser. . . so strong and so loud that it just filled up the whole back deck with a gassy smoke. . . loud enough. . . it’s like taking an air hose and sticking it in your ear. Then something exploded. . . that started the first fire… on the starboard side of the derrick. ”78 Sandell jumped up and turned off the crane cab’s air conditioner, worried that the gas would come in. “And about that time everything in the back just exploded at one time. It. . . knocked me to the back of the cab. I fell to the floor. . put my hands over my head and I just said, ‘No, God, no. ’ Because I thought that was it. ”79 Then the flames pulled back from his crane and began to shoot straight up, roaring up and over the 20-story derrick. 80 * * * * Down in the engine control room, Chief Mechanic Douglas Brown, an Army veteran employed by Transocean, was filling out the nightly log and equipment hours. He had spent the day fixing a saltwater pipe in one of the pontoons. First, he noticed an “extremely loud air leak sound. ” Then a gas alarm sounded, followed by more and more alarms wailing.
In the midst of that noise, Brown noticed someone over the radio. “I heard the captain or chief mate, I’m not sure who, make an announcement to the standby boat, the Bankston, saying we were in a well-control situation. ”81 The vessel was ordered to back off to 500 meters. 82 Now Brown could hear the rig’s engines revving. “I heard them revving up higher and higher and higher. Next I was expecting the engine trips to take over. . . . That did not happen. After that the power went out. ” Seconds later, an explosion ripped through the pitch-black control room, hurtling him against the control panel, blasting away the floor.
Brown fell through into a subfloor full of cable trays and wires. A second huge explosion roared through, collapsing the ceiling on him. All around in the dark he could hear people screaming and crying for help. 83 Dazed and buried in debris, he pulled himself out of the subfloor hole. In front of him appeared Mike Williams, chief electronic technician, blood pouring from a wound on his forehead, crawling over the rubble, screaming that he had to get out. 84 * * * * Steve Bertone, the rig’s chief engineer, had been in bed, reading the first sentence of his book, when he noticed an odd noise. As it progressively got louder, it sounded like a freight train coming through my bedroom and then there was a thumping sound that consecutively got much faster and with each thump, I felt the rig actually shake. ”85 After a loud boom, the lights went out. 86 He leapt out of bed, opening his door to let in the emergency hall light so he could get dressed. 87 The overhead public-address system crackled to life: “Fire. Fire. Fire. ” 88 10 National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling The air smelled and tasted of some kind of fuel.
A second explosion roared through, flinging Bertone across his room. He stood up, pulled on his coveralls, work boots, and hard hat, and grabbed a life vest. Out in the hall, clogged with debris from blown-out walls and ceilings, four or five men stood in shock. Bertone yelled to them to go out by the port forward or starboard forward spiral staircases and report to their emergency stations. He ran toward the bridge. 89 He went to the portside back computer, the dynamic positioning system responsible for maintaining the rig’s position. “I observed that we had no engines, no thrusters, no power whatsoever.
I picked up the phone which was right there and I tried calling extension 2268, which is the engine control room. There was no dial tone whatsoever. ” It was then that Bertone looked out to the bridge’s starboard window. “I was fully expecting to see steel and pipe and everything on the rig floor. ” “When I looked out the window, I saw fire from derrick leg to derrick leg and as high as I could see. At that point, I realized that we had just had a blowout. ”90 Fleytas hit the general alarm. 91 The alarm went off: “Report to emergency stations and lifeboats. ” The rig crew heard: “This is not a drill. This is not a drill. 92 Fleytas, realizing that the rig had not yet issued a Mayday call, sent it out. 93 Out in the dark of the Gulf, three friends on the 31-foot Ramblin’ Wreck were out on the water for a day of tuna fishing. 94 Around 9:45 p. m. , Bradley Shivers trained his binoculars at a brilliant light in the distance and realized it must be an oil rig on fire. 95 On their radio, they heard, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is the Deepwater Horizon. We are on fire. ”96 At that moment they “heard and felt a concussive sonic boom. ”97 The Ramblin’ Wreck headed to the scene, their first tuna outing of the year cut short. 8 Bertone was now back to his station on the bridge, thinking, “The engines should be starting up because in approximately 25 to 30 seconds two engines start up, come online. . . . There was still no power of any kind. No engines starting; no indication of engines starting. ”99 At that moment, the water-tight door to his left banged open and he heard someone say, “The engine room ECR [engine control room] and pump room are gone. They are all gone. ” Bertone turned around, “What do you mean gone? ” The man speaking was so coated in blood Bertone had no idea who he was. Then he recognized the voice. It was Mike Williams.
Bertone saw how badly lacerated Williams’s forehead was, grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom, pressed it on the wound to staunch the bleeding, and ordered, “Hold this here. ”100 Then he went back to his station and looked at his screen. “There was still nothing, no engines starting, no thrusters running, nothing. We were still [a] dead ship. ”101 He heard the water-tight door slam again and saw another man soaked in blood, holding a rag to his head, repeating, “I’m hurt. I’m hurt bad, Chief. I’m hurt real bad. ” It was the voice of Brent Mansfield, a Transocean marine engineer. Bertone pulled back Mansfield’s
Chapter One 11 11 hand holding a rag, saw the head wound, and ran over to the bridge door and yelled down to the life-vessel area, “We need a medic up here now. ”102 * * * * After the explosion, Randy Ezell lay buried under the blown-out walls and ceilings of the toolpusher’s office. The room was dark and smoky, the debris atop him so heavy he could barely move. On the third try, adrenalin kicked in. “I told myself, ‘Either you get up or you’re going to lay here and die. ’” Pulling hard on his right leg, he extricated it and tried to stand up. “That was the wrong thing to do because I immediately stuck my head into smoke. . . I dropped back down. I got on my hands and knees and for a few moments I was totally disoriented. ” He wondered which way the door was. He felt air. He crawled through the debris toward the door and realized the “air” was methane. He could feel the droplets. He was crawling slowly atop the rubble in the pitch-black hall when he felt a body. 103 Ezell then saw a bobbing beam of light. Stan Carden, the electrical supervisor, came round the corner. Carden had a light that bounced off shattered walls and collapsed ceilings in the pitch-black corridor, giving glimpses into rooms on each side wrecked by the power of the blast. 04 Stumbling into what was left of the hall was Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell, who had been in the shower when the rig exploded;105 he had donned coveralls, and now was groping his way out of what was left of his room. “I think I’ve got something in my eyes,” Harrell said. He had no shoes. “I got to see if I can find me some shoes. ”106 Carden and Ezell tugged debris off the man they now recognized as Wyman Wheeler. Chad Murray, Transocean’s Chief Electrician, also appeared in the hall with a flashlight, and was immediately dispatched to find a stretcher for the injured man. 07 Believing it would save time to walk Wheeler out, Ezell slung Wheeler’s arm around his shoulder. Wheeler groaned, “Set me down . . . . Y’all go on. Save yourself. ”108 Ezell said, “No, we’re not going to leave you. We’re not going to leave you in here. ”109 Just then, they heard another voice from under the rubble: “God help me. Somebody please help me. ” Near the ruins of the maintenance office the flashlight picked out a pair of feet jutting from the rubble. It was the visiting Transocean manager, Buddy Trahan, badly injured. By now Murray was there with a stretcher.
Ezell, Carden, and Murray dragged away the remains of ceilings and walls trapping Trahan and loaded him on the stretcher. Carden and Murray carried him through the smoke and dark to the bow of the rig and the lifeboats. 110 Outside, the derrick fire roared upward into the night sky, an inferno throwing off searing heat and clouds of black smoke. The blinding yellow of the flames was the only illumination except for the occasional flashlight. The rig’s alarms were going off, while over the public announcement system Keplinger yelled, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL! ”111 As the 12
National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling crew struggled out of the blasted quarters, galley, and offices, in various states of undress, they converged in a chaotic and panicked mass at the lifesaving vessels, putting on life vests. 112 Sandell, the gantry crane operator, had escaped and come around the port side of the deck to the life vessels. “It was a lot of screaming, just a lot of screaming, a lot of hollering, a lot of scared people, including me, was scared. And trying to get people on boats. It was very unorganized—we had some wounded we was putting in the boat.
Had people on the boat yelling, ‘Drop the boat, drop the boat,’ and we still didn’t have everybody on the boat yet. We was still trying to get people on the boat and trying to calm them down enough to—trying to calm them down enough to get everybody on the boat. And there was people jumping off the side. We was trying to get an accurate count and just couldn’t get an accurate count because people were just jumping off the boat. ” 113 * * * * On the Bankston, Captain Alwin J. Landry was on the bridge updating his log when his mate noticed the mud. Landry stepped out and saw “mud falling on the back half of my boat, kind of like a black rain. He called the Deepwater Horizon bridge to say, “I’m getting mud on me. ” Landry instructed his crew to get inside. The Deepwater Horizon called back and told him to move back 500 meters. 114 A crew member noticed a mud-covered seagull and egret fall to the deck. 115 Shortly after, Landry saw the rig explode. Before the ship could move away, his crew had to detach the long mud transfer hose connecting them to the rig. 116 As they scrambled to disconnect, the Bankston slowly moved 100 meters back, then 500 meters. As the rig went dark, and secondary explosions rocked the decks, the Bankston turned on its searchlight.
Landry could see the Deepwater Horizon crew mustering by the portside life vessels. “That’s when I seen the first of three or four people jump to the water from the rig. ”117 One of those was Gregory Meche, a compliance specialist. After five minutes of the chaos around the lifeboats, and a series of large explosions, he headed down to the lower deck. He jumped into the water. 118 Antonio Gervasio, the Bankston’s relief chief, and two others began launching the ship’s fast rescue craft. 119 Within a minute or two of the explosions, they got the boat lowered into the water, and noticed how calm the Gulf was. 20 “I saw the first person jump in the water. So I told one of the guys to keep an eye on him. ”121 The rig life jackets were reflective, and as the fast craft made its first sweep round from one side of the burning rig to the other, they hauled Meche and two or three others out of the water. 122 * * * * Back on the rig, Transocean’s Winslow had made his way from the coffee shop to the lifeboats, surviving the second blast’s wave of concussive force, which blew in the Chapter One 13 13 corridor’s walls and ceilings. On the deck, a firestorm of flames roared in the night sky above the derrick. 23 Winslow directed the dazed crew toward the covered life-saving vessels, instructing the first arrivals, “We need to make sure we get a good head count. ” Seeing Captain Kuchta standing at the starboard bridge door, he ran up, and said people should evacuate. Kuc