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Gulf oil spill: Companies were 'rushing to make money faster,' survivor says

May 27, 2010 |  8:06 am

"I was certain I was going to die.’’ So it seemed to Stephen Stone, a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon explosion who on Thursday recounted his experience on the deadly night, the first by a drilling-rig worker before a congressional committee.

Putting a human face to highly technical Capitol Hill hearings, Stone told the House Judiciary Committee that the April 20 blast was "hardly the first thing to go wrong.’’ "This event was set in motion years ago by these companies needlessly rushing to make money faster, while cutting corners to save money,’’ he testified.

Keith D. Jones, whose 28-year-old son, Gordon, was among 11 workers who died in the explosion, told the committee, his voice breaking with emotion, "Please believe me, no amount of money will ever compensate us for Gordon’s loss. ... But reckless acts by employees of corporations, performed to try to make the most money the fastest, will never be deterred by the payment of mere compensatory damages.’’

Jones, a Baton Rouge, La., attorney, added: "If you want these companies, one of which is headquartered in Great Britain and another in Switzerland, to make every effort to make sure their employees don’t act as these did, putting American lives at risk, you must make certain that they are exposed to pain the only place they can feel it – their bank accounts,’’

Douglas Brown, the rig’s chief mechanic, also testified before the House panel. Stone told the committee he was jarred from his bunk about 10 o’clock the night of the explosion. "I didn’t know what the sound was, so I waited for a few seconds to see what was happening,’’ he said. "Another explosion went off -- the force of it ripped through my body and collapsed the upper decks of the rig.’’

"Someone had opened the door to my cabin, and people were running up and down the halls, screaming that we had to get out. I ran through the door of my cabin and toward the stairwell to the lifeboat deck, but it had collapsed. I ran back to my room to get my life jacket, my shoes, and my wedding ring.’’

The air was "smoky and gritty’’ with debris as he and a fellow worker made their way through the rubble to the lifeboat deck, he said. Once outside, he said he he looked at the derrick, "which was completely engulfed in flames so bright, it seemed like daytime.’’

"I remember seeing people just staring at the flames,’’ he continued. "Some people were getting into the lifeboats. And some people were in such shock that they just stood there, staring, unable to move.’’

When flames on the derrick intensified, Stone said, "People started to panic and scramble for the lifeboats.’’ He got strapped himself into a lifeboat and "waited for what seemed like hours. ... I was certain I was going to die.’’

The boat was lowered into the water and made its way to a nearby supply vessel where a medic tended to the injured until the Coast Guard arrived, about 30 minutes later, he said.

Some 28 hours after the explosion, Stone made it to land. "Before we were allowed to leave, we were lined up and made to take a drug test. It was only then, 28 hours after the explosion, that I was given access to a phone, and was allowed to call my wife and tell her I was OK,’’ he said.

Days later, Stone said, a representative of rig operator Transocean asked him to sign a document "stating I was not injured, in order to get $5,000 for the loss of my personal possessions.’’ He declined to sign and hired a lawyer.

A Transocean representative is scheduled to testify.

Stone said that although he was helping to pump drilling mud down into the wellbore hole, "we kept losing drilling mud, either because the underground formation was unstable or because drilling too quickly caused the formation to crack.’’

In the weeks leading up to the explosion, he said, workers about four times had to "stop pumping drilling mud and pump down a heavy-duty sealant compound instead, to seal the cracks in the formation that were causing us to lose mud.’’

-- Richard Simon, in Washington, D.C.