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Gulf oil spill: Before explosion, BP was warned to slow down

May 26, 2010 | 12:27 pm

Hours before the fatal accident that sunk the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico,  Transocean workers quarreled with BP officials who wanted to go ahead and finish the job despite earlier problems, a rig mechanic told a U.S. Coast Guard investigatory committee Wednesday.

Douglas Brown, the rig’s chief mechanic, testified that three Transocean officials balked at the desire of a BP “company man” to go ahead with a process to clear the riser with seawater. The riser is the connector pipe between the rig and well, and this would have been a final step to finish the exploratory drilling job BP had hired Transocean to complete.

“There was a slight argument 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 mid-morning meeting, Brown said, Transocean specialist Jimmy Harrell grumbled, “Well, I guess that’s what we have those ‘pinchers’ for” – apparently referring to the shear rams on the blowout preventer on the sea floor, an emergency device used only when all other means of controlling the oil well have failed. Brown’s account suggests Harrell thought BP was taking a grave risk.

His testimony was the most dramatic of Wednesday morning’s hearing in suburban New Orleans, part of an ongoing 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 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon April 20, which killed 11 people.

On April 20, Brown was filling out a nightly log in the Deepwater Horizon’s engine control room. 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 that much tougher.

Brown testified that workers were under pressure to get the job done fast. BP and government documents suggest it was already 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,” he testified, though some BP reps had come aboard that day to congratulate the Transocean crew on its safety record.

Just before 9:45 p.m., Brown 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 No. 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. All of a sudden, blackness – the power had gone out.

The vessel had completely lost power once before, for two minutes. In 2008, engine No. 3's governor had failed. Brown said the problem, which wasn’t caught in periodic inspections, had been repaired and a representative from an inspection service, the American Bureau of Shipping, testified that it never followed up.

Safety devices are supposed to shut down the engines should they start gunning too quickly. That did not occur, Brown said, and he had no authority or instructions to them shut down himself.
Brown suspected that what happened next was the result of a sudden influx of gas that caused the explosion of engine No. 3, which was closest to the air intake system. 

“If I would have shut down those engines, it could have stopped [them] as an ignition source,” he said.

Blowouts on oil rigs begin when natural gas from under the sea floor shoots uncontrollably up the drill column and over the rig. Once a cloud of gas has erupted, it takes only a spark from any piece of mechanical equipment to ignite it into a fire that melts metal.

The first explosion – from the port side, near engine No. 3 – hurled Brown against a control panel and into a tangle of cable trays and wires. A second explosion shook the control room. The ceiling collapsed on top of him. “I started hearing people screaming and calling for help, that they were hurt, they needed to get out of here,” he said.

He and another man – bleeding profusely from his forehead – crawled out of the rubble. Brown hurried to the back deck and saw the oil derrick in flames. Despite weekly emergency drills, Brown indicated the crew was not entirely prepared for such a chaotic event.

People screamed. They cried. He heard later that some had jumped overboard. Brown headed toward a lifeboat, where the person taking a headcount 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. Later, Brown was airlifted for treatment of his injuries, which he did not specify. 

He told the investigatory panel that he hoped it weeded out the incident’s cause, so he and others “can go to work and feel safe.”

-- Ashley Powers