Rig worker: BP official rejected safety concerns
Hours before the fatal accident that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Transocean workers quarreled with a BP official who pushed to finish the job despite earlier problems, a rig mechanic told a U.S. Coast Guard investigatory committee Wednesday.
Los Angeles Times
NEW ORLEANS — Hours before the fatal accident that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, workers for the rig's owner quarreled with a BP official who wanted to finish the job despite problems, a mechanic told a U.S. Coast Guard investigatory committee Wednesday.
Douglas Brown, the rig's chief mechanic, testified that three officials for rig owner Transocean balked at the desire of a BP "company man" to remove drilling mud from the pipe connecting the rig to the well.
"There was a slight argument (that) took place. ... The company man was saying, 'This is how it's going to be,' " said Brown, who could not identify the BP official.
After the midmorning meeting, Brown said, Transocean specialist Jimmy Harrell grumbled, "Well, I guess that's what we have those 'pinchers' for," an apparent reference to the shear rams on the blowout preventer on the seafloor.
Shear rams are emergency devices used when all other means of controlling gushing oil have failed. Brown's account suggests that Harrell believed BP was taking a grave risk by replacing drilling mud with lighter seawater.
Brown's testimony was the most dramatic of a Wednesday hearing in suburban New Orleans, part of an investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal Minerals Management Service into the rig explosion.
It came as BP engineers began a procedure, called a "top kill," in the latest effort to stanch oil that has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 people and the sinking of the rig two days later.
Robert Kaluza, a top BP worker who was aboard the Deepwater Horizon in the hours leading up to the explosion, declined to testify in front of the Coast Guard panel, invoking his constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.
The move raises the possibility of criminal liability in the explosion.
Wednesday's hearing in Louisiana, however, failed to determine why — despite unusual pressure and fluid readings on the rig — a BP official decided on the day of the explosion to proceed with removing drilling mud from the well and replacing it with seawater that was unable to prevent gas from surging to the surface and exploding.
Investigators asked Brown whether he knew the name of the BP official who made the decision, but he couldn't recall it and didn't know whether it was Kaluza.
Brown was filling out a nightly log in the Deepwater Horizon's engine-control room April 20. He had worked on the rig for more than a decade. His team had been cut since 2003 and, he said, it made his job tougher.
Brown, who suffered a head injury in the blowout, testified that workers were under pressure to finish and seal the exploratory well quickly. Other testimony suggested the project might have been as much as $22 million over budget.
"It was passed around ... that this well was taking too long and (BP was) in a hurry to complete it so they could move on to the next," Brown testified.
Just before 9:45 p.m. on the night of the blowout, Brown said he heard an "extremely loud air-leak sound" that didn't sound normal.
Gas alarms started blaring. Someone over the radio announced a "well-control situation."
Engines Nos. 3 and 6, the only ones in operation, appeared to be speeding up. "I heard them revving up higher and higher and higher," Brown said. Soon afterward, electrical power went out.
Safety devices designed to shut down runaway engines failed, and he had no authority or instructions to them shut down manually.
That action could have been critical, as flammable and odorless gas began spreading through the rig from the blown-out well. Engine 3 was closest to the air intake system.
"If I would have shut down those engines," Brown said, "it could have stopped (them) as an ignition source."
Experts had suggested earlier that a tendril of gas sucked into the rig's engines caused the fire.
Brown confirmed that the first explosion came from the port side, near engine No. 3, and it was strong enough to hurl him against a control panel and into a tangle of cable trays and wires. A second explosion shook the control room, Brown said, and the ceiling of the engine room fell on him.
"I started hearing people screaming and calling for help, that they were hurt, they needed to get out of here," Brown said.
He and another man who was bleeding profusely from his forehead crawled out of the rubble. Brown hurried to the back deck, where he saw the oil derrick in flames. He described a scene of chaos: People screamed; they cried. He heard later that some had jumped overboard.
Brown headed toward a lifeboat, where the person taking a head count was nearly frozen in shock. "This was a man who's known me for nine years and he could not even remember my name," Brown said.
The order was given to abandon ship. Brown later was airlifted for treatment of his injuries.
Carl Smith, an expert witness from Diamond Offshore Drilling, later testified that there was sometimes tension between "company men" and the rig crew. Diamond Offshore was not involved in the operation.
Smith also raised questions about BP's apparent rush to finish the job. He and other experts interviewed have emphasized that the crew's priority should have been to monitor the well. Monitoring wells involves watching fluid spew from outtake systems; if more comes out than expected, it could mean there is leak in the hole.
Smith, however, said he believed the heart of the accident was an "engineering problem" that allowed the initial failure deep in the well. "This is a below-the-mud-line, down-the-well engineering problem," he said.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.
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