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High Risks and Catastrophic Results: The Story Behind BP's Deepwater Well Blowout

An excerpt from the first book to investigate what led to the oil disaster in the Gulf.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Bob Cavnar's new book,Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout(Chelsea Green, 2010)

Doug Brown found himself lying on his back--sprawled out on top of a metal deck panel on which, moments before, he had been standing, in the engine control room (ECR) of the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig. It was 9:50 p.m. and Doug, the offshore rig's chief mechanic, hearing an engine overspeeding, had just stood up from his computer to investigate when an explosion racked the otherwise normal night--the force of the blast hitting him from behind and knocking him face-first into the engine console. He bounced off the console and onto a deck panel covering a mass of electrical cables, but the panel collapsed and Brown fell through, ceiling insulation falling in on top of him. Looking out from his hole in the floor, he tried to orient himself. The room was dark and the hiss of escaping gas was deafening. Just as he tried to pull himself up and out, he was hammered with a second explosion--this one massive, driving him back down into the hole. Dazed and in shock, he didn't notice that his leg was broken, or that he had serious lacerations, or that, of course, he had a concussion. As he again dragged himself out of the hole, the hissing transformed into a violent roar. Burning oil and gas took on a life of its own, intensifying into a firestorm, engulfing the drill floor, and incinerating the derrick that rose above the rig floor just outside the control room. The CO2 fire-suppression system in the room had activated, displacing the oxygen. Breathing was difficult.

As Doug crawled out of the room and across the destroyed deck, he caught sight of Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician who had been working in his shop just adjacent to the engine control room. Bleeding profusely from a head wound, and also disoriented, Mike was crawling along the deck with a small flashlight clenched in his teeth, the only light to guide them out. Together they began making their way out of the blackness.

Having been just jarred out of bed, Steve Bertone, the rig's chief engineer, was running toward the bridge, dressing as he ran. The center staircase was blocked with debris, so he made his way to and up the port-forward spiral staircase until he reached the watertight door of the bridge. When he entered, the room was in chaos. Standing at his station, Captain Curt Kuchta was trying to make sense of what had just happened. Steve ran to his station, where his Simrad control screens confirmed his fears: The dynamic positioning system and thrusters that kept the floating rig in place were down. So were the engines. The rig was dead. He picked up the phone to call the engine control room, where Doug was supposed to be on duty. No dial tone. Setting down the useless phone, Steve rushed to the starboard window of the bridge, giving him a view of the rig floor behind him. The fire there was "derrick-leg-to-derrick-leg" and roaring over the crown, 240 feet above the deck.

At that moment, the port watertight door banged open. There stood Mike, so covered in blood that Steve didn't recognize him. Limping in behind him was Doug. "The engine room, ECR, and pump room are all gone!" Mike shouted, delirious from his head wound.

What do you mean?" Steve asked.

They're all gone. They've blown up," repeated Mike.

Steve ran to Mike, now recognizing his voice, and hollered out for medical supplies. "In the restroom!" someone shouted back. All Steve could find was a roll of toilet paper, which he applied to stop the bleeding on Mike's forehead. Steve had not noticed Chris Pleasant, the subsea supervisor, who had come in while he was tending Mike's injures. Chris was standing before the blowout preventer panel. Just seconds before, he had declared to Curt that he was going to "EDS"--that is, activate the emergency disconnect system to get the rig away from the blown-out well.

Calm down," Curt said, "we're not EDSing."

Noting what would later be described as the captain's deer-in-the-headlights hesitation, Chris ignored him and stepped to the panel anyway. Curt had already yelled at Andrea Fleytas, a dynamic positioning operator, who had taken it upon herself to call mayday on the marine radio without his authorization, even as the fire from the well reached up over the crown block of the derrick and all power went dead.

Don Vidrine, the well site leader who was called "the company man" by the old-schoolers, entered the bridge and joined Chris. Someone shouted across the bridge that they couldn't EDS without approval of the offshore installation manager--the top representative for Transocean, which owned the rig and leased it to BP. At that moment the manager, Jimmy Harrell, ran across the bridge shouting, "EDS! EDS!" Chris, looking at Don, said, "I'm gettin' off this well." Without hesitation Don said, "Get off." Chris reached out to the panel and pressed the eds button.

After the EDS sequence was complete, Chris continued to stare at the blowout preventer (BOP) panel. Something was wrong. It had done exactly what it should have done when he pushed the eds button, going through the sequence:

1. BOP stack to vent
2. Blind shear rams close
3. Control pod receptacles retract
4. Choke and kill line unlatch
5. LMRP unlatch

Chris just stood at the panel. Steve shouted, "Did you EDS? Did you EDS?" Chris shouted back, "Yes! I EDSed!"

But he hadn't. Once the sequence finished, the blind shear rams showed the red closed light on the panel, as they should have. And the EDS showed complete. Yet instead of the rig lifting off and floating free of the blowing-out well, the roaring fire on the rig continued. Looking over at his hydraulic panel alongside the control panel, Chris realized that he had no hydraulic pressure. The flow meters showed no flow. The system had moved no fluid, closed no valves. The control pods at the blowout preventer 5,000 feet below had received no signal from the surface--or if they had, they had not responded. The pilot valves had not moved. Electronically, the EDS was successful. In actuality, nothing had happened.

The Beast was winning and would not let go, and the blowout preventer had just become a five-story hunk of useless scrap metal.

Fifty feet above the rig floor, Dale Burkeen, a veteran crane operator, so popular that he was called "big brother" by the younger hands on the crew, had been at his post at the starboard crane when the well blew. A bear of a man, Dale had tried to get clear of the crane and away from the well. As he ran from his cab, the oil and gas roaring from the well lit off right in front of him. The explosion lifted him from the catwalk and over the rail, smashing his body onto the crane pedestal and the deck below.

Moments earlier, when the first explosion happened, David Young, the chief mate, who also in charge of firefighting, had just left the bridge to get some rest in the crew quarters. He ran forward, back toward the bridge, and then immediately to the fire gear locker to suit up and pass out equipment as the fire team mustered. Except nobody mustered. As he was putting on his fire-resistant jacket, another crewman told him that someone was down on the deck below the starboard crane. He ran to the main deck, saw Dale's body, and, not knowing if he was dead or alive, realized that he would need assistance to move his sizable friend. Running back to the fire gear locker, he met up with Chris Choy, a young roustabout, who joined him to attempt a rescue. By the time they got back, the intensifying fire and debris had made it impossible to get across the deck. Reluctantly, they were forced to turn back. As they made their way back to relative safety, Choy stole a glance over this shoulder at the flames roaring over the top of the derrick; he then realized that there was no fighting this monster. Even if the firefighting system was working, it was no match for this kind of hell. Eventually, they joined the others on the bridge.

There the crew had realized that if they were going to have a fighting chance, they needed power. Any power. Curt and Steve decided to get the standby generator started. Steve took the radio offered by David, but they couldn't establish communications. Of course; like everything else that night on the rig, none of the radios worked, either. Steve decided to go anyway, with Mike insisting he not go alone. The motorman, Paul Meinhart, who had also come to the bridge, went with them. As the three left the bridge and headed aft, Steve looked out onto the main deck; besides the roaring fire, he saw that the entire deck was covered with an inch of thick goo, which he later described as having the consistency of "snot." It was everywhere, and puzzled him. As they ran aft, they were able to see through the open blowout preventer storage room door into the moonpool, the huge opening below the rig floor, where pipe and tools ran between the rig floor and the well far below. Steve could see nothing in the moonpool but flames and black smoke. As the fire intensified, black smoke began circulating over the edge of the deck, only to be pulled back in by the firestorm to circulate again. Steve watched it return through the moonpool, rotating out over the decks again.

When they finally reached the standby generator room, the three went to work. They went through the start sequence and hit the button: nothing. After three or four tries, Mike checked the battery: 24 volts, good. Again, nothing. Steve went to the breaker panel, closed it, and then reopened it, hoping that would reset something. Still nothing. As Mike and Steve worked frantically, Paul went to the watertight door to look out. Steve felt the intense heat and told him to shut the door. Mike then shouted to switch to the second battery bank to see if that worked. Having done that, they hit the starter with hope. The generator was as dead as a hammer. Looking at each other, they abandoned that idea and ran back toward the bridge. It was clear that the EDS had failed.

On the bridge, the captain had already given the abandon-ship order, but Andrea and Yancy Keplinger, the other dynamic positioning operator, were still manning the marine radios. "Abandon ship!" Steve shouted. Andrea pushed the GDMSS button, which sent out a precise GPS location with an identifier message for rescue vessels, then headed out the starboard door and down the steps to the lifeboats. Chris, Don, and others had already abandoned ship and were in the number one lifeboat that was motoring away. The number two boat was long gone. The nine left on the rig grabbed a life raft, hung it from the davit, inflated it, and swung it out over the water after struggling with a line that Mike finally got cut with a pair of folding pliers he carried. Lying in a stretcher on the deck was Wyman Wheeler, one of the toolpushers, who was severely burned and had broken both his legs. David jumped into the raft, which was twisting in the wind 75 feet over the water, and pulled Wyman's stretcher inside. Steve followed him in carrying the other end. Andrea got in, along with Chad and Paul. Steve could feel the heat coming from under the rig and knew they didn't have much time. As the raft was being lowered, it began to swing and finally tilted 90 degrees in its sling, sending Wyman's stretcher and everyone else to the low side. As it got close to the water, smoke billowing out from under the rig filled the covered raft, nearly suffocating everyone inside. Andrea, terrified, finally screamed, "We're going to die!" as it slowly lowered at its crazy angle, threatening to dump everyone out.

After what seemed like an eternity, it touched down; Steve, Chad, and Paul jumped out, grabbing the raft to swim it out from under the rig, but it wouldn't move. Looking up, Steve realized the painter line was still tied off to the deck far above. No one in the raft had a knife, it being against company policy to carry one, and the knife that was supposed to be in the raft had gone missing. As they struggled with the painter, a pair of boots appeared but of the smoke above. It was Curt, who landed not 10 feet from the stranded life raft, having jumped 75 feet off the lifeboat deck. Moments later, Yancy landed a few feet from him. Looking up again, he saw someone run full speed across the helideck and jump. This was Mike, trying to aim his landing away from the life raft and others below.

Tragically, above them Jason Anderson, senior toolpusher, Dewey Revette, driller, and Stephen Curtis and Donald Clark, both assistant drillers, were all cremated unceremoniously by the well they had fought so long to tame. Floor hands Karl Kleppinger, Adam Weise, and Shane Roshto, with derrick man Wyatt Kemp, died together with two MI-Swaco mud engineers, Gordon Jones and Blair Manuel, in the mud and shaker rooms belowdecks in the first explosion. They never had a chance. Dale Burkeen had been killed, of course, when he fell from the starboard crane catwalk. The Beast had claimed all 11.

Rescue of the Survivors


Meanwhile, the motor vessel Damon Bankston had been on station alongside the rig for a couple of days. In the hours leading up to the blast, Captain Alwin Landry had spent much of the day sitting comfortably on watch, monitoring the vessel's dynamic positioning screen as he watched his crewmen manage a mud-unloading operation. The Bankston, owned by Tidewater Marine, was in continuous service to theHorizon--its constant and very familiar companion. That morning, the Bankston had been taking on mud from the rig through a hose lowered from the rig's port crane. Since the floatingHorizon was preparing for a move, Alwin was expecting to take on about 4,500 barrels of mud from the rig as it displaced its riser--which connected the well to the rig--and cleaned out its mud pits.

Anthony Gervasio, the Bankston's relief chief, was down below filling the day tanks with fuel, preparing for the new day's operations, when he heard what he thought was a loud release of air or gas--he couldn't tell which, but it was loud enough to penetrate the hearing protectors that he always wore in the engine room. As he came topside, looking up toward the rig, he saw an explosion just aft of the derrick. The lights then went out, followed by a second, larger explosion that filled the derrick with flame. Recognizing that this was a really bad situation, Anthony didn't need an order from the captain to disconnect the mud hose from the rig. As he ran toward the hose, mud began raining down on the boat. With the assistance of a couple of crewmen, he managed to disconnect the hose and throw it over the side. Alwin was already maneuvering the boat away from the rig when the order came from the Horizon's radio to stand off at 500 meters due to a well-control problem. The Bankston crew watched the fire as it reached over the crown of the derrick.

Having trained regularly on man-overboard drills and fast rescue craft (FRC) operations, Anthony was familiar with the procedure. He ran to the FRC, jumped in, and got it lowered to the water, away from the Bankston. Crewman Louis Langlois had joined him on the way down. Looking toward the rig, Anthony could already see flashes of light, which were reflective patches on workers' coveralls as they began jumping from the rig. Alwin, standing on the bridge, spotlighted the first survivor in the water so Anthony could see him. Anthony rushed out to the jumper, dragged him aboard, then went to the next spotlighted person. When the boat was full, they returned to the Bankston, where crewmen helped the survivors aboard. And so it went. As the flames intensified, Alwin maneuvered the Bankston to act as a shield from the heat and debris while survivors scrambled aboard on the starboard side. Back to the rig Anthony and Louis would go, circling and picking up survivors. At the same time, the lifeboats from the Horizon began arriving. As each pulled alongside, crew would assist everyone aboard.

When Anthony headed back toward the rig for yet another run, he spotted a life raft under the rig, but he saw someone in the water on the way. It was Mike. Dragging him aboard, he could hear Chad calling out for help from the life raft. Cautiously pulling up to the raft, he saw that it was still tied to the rig with the painter. Curt Kuchta, who was already in the water trying to get the line loose from the raft, swam over to the FRC, grabbed the knife Louis offered, swam back, and cut the painter. Anthony then tied them on and backed the raft down toward the Bankston. As the FRC pulled slowly toward the boat, a fishing vessel, the Rambling Wreck, arrived on scene. Curt sent word to them through the FRC to begin search patterns for any missing crew.

Coast Guard helicopters arrived shortly after, landing a rescue swimmer on the deck of the Bankston to assess injuries. The deck was so slick with mud from the blowout that the crew had to assist him to the cabin below where the injured were being cared for. Those in the worst condition were Wyman Wheeler, whom Steve had pulled onto the life raft, and Buddy Trahan, one of the Transocean executives who had come aboard with the BP visiting party that day and now had a broken leg and burns across his back. The swimmer made a quick evaluation and then began evacuating the injured from the deck by helicopter. The Coast Guard landed several other swimmers, and by six hours after the blowout all 16 injured, including Wyman and Buddy, were off the Damon Bankston and on their way to hospitals on the beach.

You'd think it was time to head home with the survivors. Oddly, though, under orders from BP, the Bankston made multiple stops on the way back, some to take on Coast Guard and BP personnel, some to drop off. The first stop on the way in was Diamond Offshore's Ocean Endeavor. Four BP/Transocean personnel were dropped off, and several medics were brought aboard. They then moved on to the Matterhorn platform and took on food, water, clothing, and more Coast Guard personnel. By the time they finally got back home at Port Fourchon, it was 1:27 a.m. on April 22. The crew was exhausted, injured, and still terrified; BP and Transocean decided that urinalysis would make the perfect welcome, followed by sequestration for the rest of the night in a nearby hotel. Before the workers were reunited with their families, release forms and statements were thrust in front of them. Some cooperated, some did not.

Now What?

On the night of April 20, 2010, 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana, at approximately 9:50 in the evening, the oil and gas industry changed forever. Eleven good men lost their lives at the moment that BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252 exploratory well violently blew out, shooting out the seawater that had been filling the riser connecting the semi-submersible rig to the well on the seafloor 5,000 feet below. The Deepwater Horizon, and its service vessel alongside, theDamon Bankston, had been pelted with a torrent of seawater and mud. Gas had followed almost instantly, sucked into the inductions of the two massive Wartsila deck engines that provided power to the rig and its systems. Breathing in the hydrocarbon-rich air into the fuel mixture, the overwhelmed number three engine, its emergency gas-sensing shutdown system disabled, ran away with itself, exploding in moments.

The blast of the exploding deck engine set off a chain reaction of events that ignited the giant jet of oil and gas coming up through the drilling rig floor, incinerating everything nearby, including the rig floor crew. The lights went out. Transocean's Deepwater Horizon had transformed into a latter-day Titanic.

That night, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The deadman, a system that automatically closes the blowout preventer if it loses contact with the rig on the surface, failed. The emergency disconnect system, which separates the riser away from the top of the BOP, failed. The general alarm system was disarmed. Many of the gas sensors were inhibited, and emergency shutdowns for the engines were disabled or inoperative. Even the telephones and radios wouldn't work. The well was flowing uncontrolled to the surface while the rest of the crew scrambled for the lifeboats or jumped to safety unsupervised and unprotected. Once the survivors were rescued by the Damon Bankston, the Coast Guard and other workboats rushed to the scene but could only watch helplessly as the doomed rig began to drift and list, its dynamic positioning and flotation systems dead. Two days later, the rig sank, landing on the bottom 1,300 feet from the blowing-out well. It will remain on the bottom forever as not only a monument to those who died but also a stark reminder of the arrogance of overconfidence in sophisticated technology, and complacency bred from too many successes at shortcutting. As the rig sank, the riser, still connected to the well, kinked and fell to the bottom, oil and gas roaring from several breaks in the pipe, putting even further stress on the BOP. As of this writing, oil gushed from the well for 87 days and the rig remains on the bottom.

The oil began washing up on beaches and wetlands of Louisiana's fragile coastline weeks after the disaster, and giant subsurface plumes of it, likely caused by unprecedented application of toxic dispersants on the seafloor, have now reached close to the loop current that could take it beyond the Gulf of Mexico. No serious person ever believed the fairy tale spun by the government, as BP stood mum, that the well was flowing at only the 1,000- and then 5,000-barrel-per-day rate that they stuck to for over five weeks; reluctantly the government now admits that the flow was as high as 80,000 barrels per day, not counting the natural gas being produced along with the oil. Even though the well was shut in on July 15, the world waited for the nightmare to end for five months, hoping this Beast would be permanently killed.

So. Now what? All of the shouts of "Drill, baby, drill" of the 2008 presidential campaign are silent. The free-market libertarians and Tea Party activists who called for deregulation of the oil industry and letting the "free market" solve our energy problems, and who also railed against a "government takeover of health care," ironically called for a government takeover of BP's cleanup effort at the height of the crisis. At the same time, though, their representatives actually apologized to BP, a foreign corporation, for this administration's requirement that it escrow $20 billion for the cleanup, calling it a "government shakedown" of private enterprise. As well, the same voices that speculated that the Obama administration was secretly planning to shut down the oil and gas industry, then criticized him for not going further in opening new areas to offshore exploration in early 2010, are now severely criticizing him for not doing enough to make BP get this well killed and making offshore drilling instantly safer. As they insist upon these oddly conflicting requirements, they also oppose any moratorium the president proposes to make deepwater drilling less risky. As usual, politicians from both sides are doing what they do best: playing politics. In the meantime, over 30 similarly designed rigs have been operating off US coastlines, and the world's first ever deep-sea oil plumes drift through the ocean causing untold damage. The scope of this disaster remains unimaginable--the impact unknown. I suppose we'll begin to get a sense of the total damage as species of sea life disappear from the Gulf and families with a multigeneration history in fishing go out of business.

In the midst of this catastrophe, real problems confront us. Some call for shutting down all offshore production. We simply can't do that, of course, since about 30 percent of our domestic energy supply comes from that region, and shutting it down would require us to import more oil, not less, from countries that hate us and use our own money against us. Some call for shutting down only the deepwater. Same answer, since about 80 percent of offshore production comes from these relatively few deepwater wells. Others call for alternative energy sources, including nuclear. These should certainly continue to be developed, but none of the alternative technologies is anywhere close to taking over any material part of our near-term energy demand, especially that used for transportation, and many issues remain unresolved, such as nuclear waste disposal. Answers are years away, if not decades, though, of course, we must start.

The disaster on the Horizon should be a wake-up call for all Americans, as it brings both energy security and responsibility for stewardship of our environment into clear focus. We all witnessed the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States unfold before us on our televisions and computer screens while watching private enterprise, and government, incompetently struggle with the massive scale of the necessary response. This disaster has ignited a whole new debate about energy policy and controlling our own destiny, the role of multinational corporations in our economy, and our ability to cope with the effects of globalization on our country as a whole. As we struggle with the current issues, we still must face the future.

Copyright 2010 -- Chelsea Green: All Rights Reserved

Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, just released by Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
 
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