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Gulf oil spill: Witness gives harrowing account of escaping Deepwater Horizon explosion

July 23, 2010 |  4:26 pm

To Mike Williams, the first clue to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon was a hiss.

Williams, a rig engineer technician, was in an office on the phone with his wife when he heard announcements over the rig’s loudspeaker about increasingly high gas levels being reported across the vessel. He wasn’t worried, because these kinds of announcements were routine.

“When the levels reached 200 [parts per million] -- that’s the cutoff for all chipping and grinding ... that’s when I started getting concerned,” Williams told a panel of federal investigators meeting in suburban New Orleans Friday.

Then he heard the hissing and a thump.

"I said, 'Honey, I need to check this out,' ” Williams said. 

Williams spoke calmly, slowly, and clearly to a quiet hearing room, interrupted only occasionally by a panelist's question during the 30-minute tale that stood in sharp contrast with technical testimony that has dominated the investigative hearings this week.

He told the panel that within seconds of getting off the phone with his wife, he started hearing beeping, coming from the vents in the engine control room. “I hear the beep-beep-beep-beep-beep, and I’m thinking: 'What’s going on? Is there a process station acting up?' ”

About the time, Williams said, he knew he needed to investigate; he heard nearby Engine No. 3, to his left, start to rev.

As he pushed back from his table, his computer monitor in front of him exploded.

“All the lights in my shop popped,” he said. He grabbed the handle on his door, and the engine revved even faster. “It’s spinning so fast that it stopped spinning and there was a huge explosion,” Williams said.

The blast was so powerful it blew off a fire door and blew Williams across his office. Within seconds, fire control systems containing carbon dioxide starting discharging. He couldn’t see or breathe, and he crawled across the floor to exit his room, his path illuminated by a pen flashlight held by his teeth.

He made it to the next door.

“As I reached the next handle, it exploded. That was explosion No. 2,” Williams said. “That explosion pushed me back 30, 35 feet into the wall.”

One arm and leg were injured, Williams said. But he knew he had to get outside so he could breathe. He crawled through the engine control room and over the bodies of two men.

Once he got outside, he turned to the right and saw part of the rig had disappeared: “There was no walkway. There was no stairwell left. One more step and i would’ve run into the water,” Williams said. The wall and handrail next to Engine No. 3 were gone.

He contemplated launching a lifeboat by himself, but then remembered he had a duty to go to his emergency station. His first emergency station -- the engine control room -- was gone, so he put on his lifejacket and headed up to his secondary station, the bridge.

On the way, he saw that the drilling shack -- the room that operates the drill -- and half the derrick were on fire. He then realized that there was a blowout, meaning the oil well was now gushing out of control.

WIlliams made it to the bridge. He said he reported immediately to the captain.

“We have no propulsion. We have no power. We have no [engine control room],” Williams said he told the captain. “We need to abandon ship now.”

“He looked at me with that dazed and confused -- with a deer-in-the-headlights look,” Williams said. “At one point I was told to finally calm down, sit down, we’re working on it.”

Williams’ supervisor, chief engineer Stephen Bertone, saw that Williams was bleeding copiously from a head wound. Bertone couldn’t find a first-aid kit. He found some toilet paper to stop the blood flowing over his eyes.

Bertone asked the captain if he should start up the standby generator.  The captain said, “Will it give me fire pumps or propulsion?” Williams recalled.

“No. It’ll give us lighting, and it’ll give us the ability to bring them [the engines] back online later,” Bertone replied, according to Williams.

Bertone began to head to the standby generator room, near the burning derrick. No one volunteered to go with him, so Williams grabbed Bertone’s shirttail and told him, “You’re not going by yourself. I’m going with you.” Another man, Paul, then grabbed his shirttail, and joined them, Williams said.

But the trio failed to get the generator started. They headed back to the bridge. On the way, Williams noted that Lifeboat No. 1, which was attached to a pulley system, had descended and motored away from the rig.

They returned to the bridge, and Williams learned that the captain had given an order to abandon ship.

As Williams got back to the lifeboats, he saw Lifeboat No. 2 was gone. “Once they go, there’s no coming back, because we have no power” to hoist them up, he said.

Both lifeboats at the front of the rig were gone. Someone suggested making their way to the lifeboats to the rig’s aft. They pushed through to the back of the rig, walking through small explosions, hearing pops and fearing the collapse of the rig.

They made it to the aft. As people got into lifeboats, the fire had engulfed the top of the derrick. Debris fell and flew everywhere. The smoke and heat were intense. But it took a while to get the first lifeboat ready. Williams worried that the lifeboat would pop, killing everyone inside, because the heat was so intense.

The last three people, including Williams, were waiting to get in the lifeboat when the lifeboat began descending, leaving them alone on the rig.

Williams said he didn’t think there was enough time to deploy another life raft.

“We can stay here and die or we can jump,” Williams told the other two. He told a young woman standing next to him that she had to run and jump.

“I remember her responding that she couldn’t jump; she couldn’t jump,” Williams said. “And I remembered seeing the other individual go and jump. I said, ‘He just did it. You’ve got to do it.’”

“She kept saying she couldn’t do it. Then I said, ‘Well, watch me, then,’ ” Williams said. He jumped.

Once he hit the water, he couldn’t see anything -- he was covered in oil. He started back-stroking, and realized he felt no heat and no pain.

“I thought, ‘That was it. I had died,’ ”  Williams said.

Sometime later, Williams said he woke up, and he felt the heat and pain, and thought, “I gotta swim. I gotta swim.”

Williams said he heard a faint voice in the distance. “Over here. Over here.”

He started swimming as hard as he could, until he felt someone lifting him out of the water.

Williams told his rescuer that “we need to get away from the fire. It’s bad.”

The rescuer said he couldn’t; there were more people in the water.

The boat made more rescues, drawing closer to the heat of the fire. Williams said he finally saw a life boat stuck under the rig, still tethered to the line that had lowered it from the rig. No one on the life boat could find a knife to cut the rope. “It was simply stuck,” Williams said.

One of the men on the rescue boat had a knife, and the line was cut.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Kenner, La.